If one were to describe the show to someone who had never seen it, "Les Miserables" would sound like a very unlikely candidate for a musical that has triumphed for more than 25 years -- "It's set in 19th century France and it's about a paroled convict and a bunch of desperately poor people."
Yet, it has endured despite that, because, after all, who hasn't felt imprisoned at times? Who hasn't wanted to protect their child? Who hasn't loved without being loved in return? Who hasn't fought for something, knowing it would likely end in defeat? These themes are the backbone of "Les Miserables," and they make the show a classic.
The 25th anniversary production I saw on opening night at the Fox reconfigures "Les Miserables" beautifully and energetically. (I know this for a fact because I saw it in London in 1988.) I was really not expecting anything new when I saw the production currently at the Fox, but I was amazed at how brilliantly the old warhorse of a show has been revamped, after 25 years.
There are generally two kinds of musicals, those that feature dance, and those that feature voices. "Les Miserables" features voices, and the melodies capture your imagination and stay with you long after the final curtain. Those soaring melodies are another reason "Les Miserables" has endured so long. Everyone in the cast showcased the songs and sang with technical excellence and vigor.
The themes of the show are universal, which certainly guarantees its enduring appeal. Victor Hugo's classic story of Jean Valjean contains themes and motifs that everyone can relate to -- imprisonment, despair, redemption, sacrifice. Imprisoned and forced to endure hard labor for nearly 20 years for stealing bread, one cannot imagine Jean being anything but bitter.
When he turns his life around and becomes successful, he unwittingly fails to help a young woman (Fantine) and then promises to care for her child, Cosette, to atone. Years pass. He then gets caught up in a revolution fought by students, one of whom is in love with Cosette. All the while, he is pursued by Javert, his jailer and tormentor from his time in prison.
The role of Jean Valjean requires an actor and singer of immense stamina and vocal abilities. He ages from a young man to an old man, and morphs into several different kinds of men. Peter Lockyer commands the stage in all his scenes and owns the role. His voice roars out in the harsh notes of songs like the opening soliloquy when he's a prisoner, then floats to heaven in the iconic "Bring Him Home." (Despite the fact that I've heard that song many times, I still cried when I heard it on opening night.)
The production values in this newest incarnation of "Les Miserables" are worthy of their own review. Enormous set pieces are used throughout the play to great effect, without overshadowing the story or music. Most impressive are the screens that very realistically project swirling cityscapes, tunnels of trees, and even the sewers of Paris. They add immense depth to what the audience sees, creating three dimensions from what is normally the very two-dimensional world of the stage.
I was blown away by how artfully and beautifully the show has been revamped, and I wholeheartedly would urge anyone to see "Les Miserables," even if you've seen it before and think the 'wow factor' must surely be missing after all this time. It's not.
"Les Miserables" runs through April 29 at the Fox Theater, 660 Peachtree Street Northeast, Atlanta, GA. For info or tickets call 404-881-2100 or visit www.foxtheatre.org