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Reimagined ‘Les Miz’ breathes new life into Broadway classic

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 11:11 a.m. CDT • Updated: Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012 11:15 a.m. CDT

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Producer Cameron Mackintosh dreamed a dream of refining the world’s long-running musical spectacular “Les Misérables,” and with the 25th anniversary stage production of the popular show, his dream has been realized.

Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, “Les Misérables” opened to a packed house Tuesday night at the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, whisking the audience away to 18th century France for a tale of redemption and love rising from the ashes of revolution and suffering.

The story of “Les Misérables” — often shorted to “Les Miz” — spans several decades, beginning in 1815, when protagonist Jean Valjean (played by Peter Lockyer) is released on parole by inspector Javert (Andrew Varela) after serving 19 years for stealing bread to feed his starving family. Unable to find honest work with his own personal scarlet letter — his ticket-of-leave — Valjean steals from a bishop who had offered him food and shelter. When the authorities arrive to arrest Valjean, the bishop responds with mercy and forgiveness, lying to protect Valjean and admonishing him to a better way of life.

Eight years, later, Valjean has assumed a new identity, Monsieur Madeleine, and is a wealthy factory owner and mayor. He breaks up a fight involving one of his workers, Fantine (Betsy Morgan), and asks his factory foreman to resolve the problem. The foreman dismisses Fantine, and she resorts to a life of prostitution to support herself and her illegitimate daughter. Fantine is in danger of arrest after she defends herself against an abusive customer, but Valjean arrives and, realizing his part in her downfall, orders Javert to take her to a hospital instead. After observing Valjean’s display of great strength when saving a man pinned under a cart, Javert is reminded of the prisoner who violated his parole, telling the mayor the story of prisoner 24601 and assuring him the villain has been recaptured. Unable to see an innocent man go to prison in his place, Valjean confesses his identity, revealing the brand on his chest identifying him as the real prisoner 24601. 

Before returning to prison, Valjean visits a dying Fantine and promises to find and look after her daughter, Cosette. Javert arrives to arrest him, but Valjean escapes. He locates Cosette at an inn run by the Thénardiers, who abuse Cosette and spoil their daughter, Éponine. Valjean pays the Thénardiers to let him take Cosette away to Paris, where he raises her as his own daughter.

Nine years later, Paris is in unrest due to the expected demise of the only government leader who has compassion for the poor. Caught between Javert’s unwavering pursuit and the street gang led by the Thénardiers, Valjean fights to protect Cosette and her beloved, Marius, as his past continues to haunt him and a student-led revolution erupts.

It is difficult to believe that when “Les Misérables” opened on Oct. 8, 1985, in London, critical reviews were negative, with literary scholars condemning the production for reducing classic literature to a mere musical. Public opinion, however, was overwhelmingly positive, and the box office received record orders. The Broadway production opened in 1987 and ran through 2003, making it the third longest-running Broadway show in history and the longest-running musical in the world. Multiple cast recordings are available of the show’s hit musical numbers, a few of which include “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “The People’s Song” and “Bring Him Home.”

Several revivals of “Les Misérables” led to Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production, overseen by associate director Anthony Lyn and directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. The “Les Miz” reboot features brighter lighting and costumes as well as the elimination of a revolving turntable for the defining piece of stagecraft — which was cutting-edge theater technology in the 1980s — in favor of Victor Hugo’s paintings as backdrops. The technique creates a sense of movement and depth, especially when Valjean and Marius escape through a sewer tunnel toward the end of the play.

Critics have suggested the new production “actually exceeds the original. The storytelling is clearer, the perspective grittier and the motivations more honest.” Between the contemporary alterations and the classic musical numbers, executed fabulously by a talented cast that includes several children, “Les Misérables” is a dream not to be missed.

Show times are 7:30 p.m. tonight through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are on sale at www.civiccenter.org, all Ticketmaster locations or by calling the Civic Center at (515) 246-2300. Only children age 5 and older with tickets are allowed into the theater for the production.

Mandi Lamb can be contacted at (641) 792-3121 ext. 424 or via email at mlamb@newtondailynews.com.

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