The Walton Arts Center welcomes the 25th anniversary production of megamusical Les Misérables to its stage, a reimagined, retuned version of the masterpiece aimed at speaking (okay, singing) to a new generation. Based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the same title, Les Mis, so-called by its faithful fans, is the third longest running Broadway show in history, with over 6691 performances in New York alone (not to even touch on its continuing London reception and other productions around the world).
The story is sweeping, the tale of Jean Valjean’s rise from the fettered ranks of the lowest of the low to a successful (though on-the-lamb) ex-con striving to make the world a better place than the prison he found in it. Valjean, played by Ron Sharpe, moves across the dismal landscape of 19th Century France seeking redemption in caring for his ward, Jenny Latimer’s Cosette.
The new production has flash: with stunning new orchestration, a very strong cast who make the songs we know and love their own, and gorgeous staging with breathtaking effects. It hits all the right notes. Those who have fallen for Les Mis in the past will notice the changes, the loss, for instance, of the iconic turntable barricades from which the student revolutionaries make their last stand. Though we only get one perspective now, with just a sense of the organizing French forces on the other side, I think it serves to entrench the audience in the desperation of our heroes’ stance.
Andrew Varela stops the show as Javert, the inspector who spends his life hunting Valjean. His realization that the criminal he is after is not what he thought is, for me, one of the most moving character arcs in musical theatre. Varela’s crucial scene where he succumbs to his doubts is nearly flawless and crescendos in an impressive technical twist that I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by.
Éponine, the outcast street urchin in love with the unattainable Marius (played by Justin Scott Brown) is another standout performance. Chasten Harmon’s Éponine adds a clean, more contemporary sound to her character’s solos and takes the role in a more interesting direction than the potentially pathetic. When she falls at the barricade, her duet with Marius is simply chilling.
The new show is more gut-wrenching, with less comic relief and farce. A certain realism is leant by the new design, based on Hugo’s own paintings, combined with a strikingly elaborate set. It has something for everyone; from costume to lighting, the production impresses as always.
This Les Mis succeeds in reaping the harvest of decades, a mature production where composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s finest work bears the marks of a chiseled and finely-wrought reprisal. It only got better. Northwest Arkansas audiences are sometimes too generous with their standing ovations, but last night was one time when I wanted nothing more than to stand and applaud.
Les Misérables runs May 3-8. Tickets can be purchase at waltonartscenter.org.
Tobias writes theatre reviews for the Fayetteville Flyer. He is pursuing a Master of Fine Arts through the Arkansas Programs in Creative Writing and Translation and teaches at the University of Arkansas. He is also an associate company member with The Artist’s Laboratory Theatre. For more of Tobias’ contributions, see his author page.