Les Miserables is one of my favorite musicals so I was excited to take in the 25th anniversary tour that is currently playing at The National Theatre. One of the more interesting aspects for me was to see the new staging of the show. You hear about a new staging of a beloved production and you wonder if it is going to distract or take away from a show you know and love. Fortunately, that was not the case with Les Miserables. Gone is the turntable and added are much more elaborate set pieces and a supporting video screen at the back of the stage to help with the scenery. Nearly all of the changes were positive, and those that weren’t had more to do with particular moments of the show where I personally responded too in the original staging than what was done in this production.
The changes begin right from the opening second of the show as Valjean is no longer part of a chain gang working in a field, but is now part of a group of convicts rowing a large boat. The new set pieces and video technology were ever present throughout the show and truly enhanced the production and even re-defined small moments and what the text means. And for a long-time fan of the show it was a true pleasure to experience the show again, almost as if for the first time. For instance, when Marius encounters Cossette at her home for the first time and sings “I’ve done everything all wrong”, the meaning has ever so slightly changed with the new staging. Before it was the two characters standing face to face when he sings that line and it comes across as a young lover who is unable to get the words out that he wants. With the new staging Cossette is standing on a balcony and she quickly darts into the house. In response, Marius sings that line as if he just blew his chance. Of course, Cossette emerges moments later from the front door to meet him. Perhaps small and insignificant, but it was a clever new interpretation of the dialogue that happened occasionally throughout the show.
The staging and set pieces changed even the more iconic moments, like on “One Day More” and the triangle of the ensemble that sing that number at the end of the first act. With the use of the video screen the students are now marching down an avenue in Paris and gone is the tight-knit triangle they were marching in as they spread across the stage at the culmination of the song. The video technology was used as a tool to help support the action on stage and not as a plot device to help enhance a subpar production, like was done in Jekyll & Hyde, which recently played at the Kennedy Center. It was best used during Javert’s suicide in the second act, which truly was a moment of stage magic that came out of nowhere. With Javert apparently rigged to some wiring he steps off the bridge, but is suspended in mid-air as the set pieces making up the bridge leave the stage and he begins flailing as if he is falling. At the same time the video technology changes your perspective to the point where it feels as if you are standing on the bridge looking down at the falling Javert as he disappears to the blackness of the back of the stage.
The moments that did change that were truly noticeable were far and few between, but were completely understandable. With the turntable gone the audience is no longer able to see both sides of the barricade, so Gavroche’s death now takes place off stage, and the slow motion tumble of the students as the barricade falls is now gone as well. But these are the only two moments of the show where I remember something of substance no longer being in the show. In any event, how the new production handled those moments were satisfying enough.
My one complaint of the performance was that of Thenardier. For such a solemn and sad show the Thernadier’s are there to be the lightness and humor throughout the show. I have seen productions when “Master of the House” takes down the house. Unfortunately, only Madame Thernadier lives up to the elements of humor that should be there. I felt Thenardier himself was played too angry, instead of the conniving con man that brings out the humor in that role. Notwithstanding this, the national tour of Les Miserables is an excellent production that is well worth the visit from first time viewers to long-time fans.
Up Next: “An Iliad” at Studio Theatre