There has scarcely been a musical theater phenomenon like Les Misérables, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of lawbreaking and redemption, set against the backdrop of the impending French Revolution. Cameron Mackintosh’s new, more modern staging of the juggernaut, now on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre through July 8, runs like a well-oiled machine — and for that, you have to take the good with the bad.
Les Miz is sometimes denigrated as mere spectacle, but the reimagined staging doesn’t exactly support this claim. The elaborate constructions of Matt Kinley’s set design, like the hodgepodge barricade, are used in understated ways, with Paule Constable’s high-key, dramatic lighting focusing almost solely on the performers. Often, the stage is shrouded in darkness, save for a spot on a single actor, and the effect often strips the show down to its essentials — Schönberg and Boublil’s songs, frequently emotionally stirring independent of flashy stagecraft.
On the other hand, a massive touring production like this can feel a tad sterile, and it doesn’t help matters that Mackintosh’s updated staging has been streamlined to the brink. Upping the tempo doesn’t really hurt comedic numbers like “Master of the House,” but when something like Javert’s “Stars” has the feeling of being raced through, much of the contemplative, haunting power dissipates, no matter how great the voice singing it.
Speaking of voices, this production is fully stocked with top-notch talent — Peter Lockyer’s Jean Valjean gives the entire production an exceptionally strong anchor to build around, as he convincingly transforms from petty thief to compassionate leader. His “Bring Him Home” offers up the most jaw-dropping vocal power of the show, although Andrew Varela’s nuanced portrayal of upright and unforgiving lawman Javert is also accompanied by a stunning baritone with the seeming ability to bring down the house with ease.
Elsewhere, we get perfectly capable, if not entirely memorable turns from Max Quinlan and Lauren Wiley as young lovers Marius and Cosette. Their romance feels a little perfunctory though, without a palpable sense of urgency one would expect in the midst of a revolution. Timothy Gulan also coasts a little as the lecherous Thénardier, allowing Shawna M. Hamic to scoop up the majority of the laughs with her more animated turn as his grotesque wife.
Les Misérables has become an institution unto itself in the theater world, and its enduring popularity should come as no surprise to anyone who’s witnessed Mackintosh’s new production. At its core, Les Miz is an emotionally wrenching force of nature, and it’s one that sure to keep on enduring through the decades.
The 5th Avenue’s limited return engagement of Les Misérables is on stage now through July 8. Tickets start at $49 and are available for purchase online.