Story: Spanning a period from 1815 to 1832, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean against the backdrop of revolution in 19th century France. Imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Valjean is freed from a slave labor camp only to be branded as an outcast because of his criminal record.
His life is changed when a kindly bishop invites him into the bishop’s home for a meal and a night’s lodging. The bitter Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware, but is stunned after his capture when the cleric lies to police and says that he gave his valuables to Valjean. Instructed by the bishop to change his life, Valjean eventually changes his name to Madeleine and becomes a business owner and mayor in the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer.
Still pursued by Javert, a police officer obsessed with bringing the parole violator to justice, Valjean promises a dying young woman, Fantine, that he will care for her young daughter. He rescues young Cosette from an abusive and greedy couple named Thenardier, who dote on their daughter Eponine but abuse Cosette.
Nearly a decade later, Valjean and Cosette reside in Paris, where student revolutionaries led by Enjolras plan to seize power following the death of General Lamarque, the only government leader with feelings for the poor. Cosette falls in love with a student named Marius, who in turn is loved by Eponine. As the people prepare for civil war, Javert continues his resolute pursuit of Valjean, determined to return him to prison after nearly 20 years of freedom.
Highlights: Les Miserables has won numerous awards since premiering in France in 1980. Subsequent productions opened in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, where Les Miserables was one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history. The Muny previously staged a rousing presentation of Les Miz in 2007, as memory serves. This current rendition is a superior effort on many levels and one of the highlights of the 2013 calendar year in St. Louis to date.
Other Info: Executive producer Mike Isaacson deserves copious praise for putting together an exhilarating team of professionals who make this Les Miz absorbing and rewarding throughout its nearly three hours of stage time (which includes a 15-minute intermission).
It’s tough to know where to start to catalogue the impact of this epic, sprawling work, the type of extravaganza that was made for the immense Muny stage and amphitheater. For example, this rendition is overseen in exhausting detail by Richard Jay-Alexander, a first-time Muny director who also happens to have staged the original Broadway, touring and selected international productions in association with Cameron Mackintosh, who spearheaded the original London production.
Certainly, Jay-Alexander has a knack for guiding what must be more than 100 performers who populate the stage at one point or another for thrilling scenes such as the ill-fated battle in Act II or the stirring Act I finale. He is aided immeasurably in his efforts by associate director Marybeth Abel.
Jay-Alexander’s magnificent cast is led by two Broadway veterans, Hugh Panaro and Norm Lewis. Panaro has essayed the lead role in The Phantom of the Opera for more than 1,800 performances and made his Broadway debut as Marius in the original production of Les Miserables. Panaro’s luxurious voice is ideal for the long stretches of emotion required in singing the role of Jean Valjean.
Panaro has a most worthy adversary on stage in Norm Lewis, who brings a commanding presence to the role of the obsessed Javert. Lewis previously has performed in the Broadway version of Les Miz as well as the West End presentation. His imposing physique and rich, deep baritone bring considerable gravitas to the role of the epic villain.
There’s also a truly majestic set designed by Robert Mark Morgan, which includes a massive painting that welcomes patrons to the time and place, as well as some mammoth pieces such as the barricade constructed of flotsam and jetsam that dominates the battle scenes. Lighting designer Nathan Scheurer bathes scenes with harsh, dramatic lighting or soft, focused illumination, depending on the situation, while Rob Denton’s projections clearly indicate a Parisian street or a starry night or a dark tunnel to precise effect.
Jason Krueger brings the explosive sounds of battle to bear in his sound design, costumes are evocative of time and place and social strata courtesy of Kathleen Melcher’s consulting and Carole Tucker’s coordination, and Kevin Stites’ musical direction is stirring and suitably romantic.
The hard-working cast includes Michael McCormick and Tiffany Green as the greedy, vulgar Thenardiers, who lead the chorus in a raucous rendition of Master of the House in one of the show’s signature comic moments.
Jay-Alexander wanted to cast college students in the roles of the young characters and has succeeded admirably with Katie Travis as Cosette, Alex Prakken as Marius, Lindsey Mader as Eponine, Bobby Conte Thornton as Enjolras and Charlotte Maltby as Fantine. And there’s remarkable work done by Lilly Kanterman as young Cosette, Lily McDonald as young Eponine and Jimmy Coogan as the flag-waving, street urchin Gavroche.
Claude-Michel Schonberg’s music is as thrilling and affecting as ever, as are the English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, adapted from the original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with additional material by James Fenton, all based on Victor Hugo’s sweeping 1863 novel.
You may have seen Les Miserables before, but you likely won’t view a presentation as panoramic and persuasive as this one.
Musical: Les Miserables
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 21
Tickets: Free to $80; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Larry Pry