Location: Paper Mill Playhouse, 22 Brookside Drive, Millburn, NJ
Website: Official Paper Mill Playhouse site
Starring: Lawrence Clayton, Andrew Varela, Betsy Morgan, Chasten Harmon, Justin Scott Brown, Jenny Latimer, Shawna M. Hamic, Michael Kostroff
My Review: As if there aren’t enough things in this world that remind of the fact that I’m not getting any younger, now the musical that ignited my love of musical theater so many years ago is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Yes, Les Misérables is 25 and kicking off a new U.S. tour at the Paper Mill Playhouse. And in a somewhat futile attempt to scale back on one of the most grandiose musicals ever, the spinning lazy Susan-inspired stage is gone, as is the giant barricade that folds down onto the stage. But the music is all there, along with the enormous cast, and if you’re willing to let yourself get swept up in a musical that takes itself very seriously, the emotional wallop is as strong as ever.
Les Misérables is about a lot of things, and the fact the source novel was able to be whittled into a three-hour show is still somewhat unbelievable. At its core, it’s the story of Jean Valjean, a thief who breaks parole to search for redemption, and Javert, the pious police officer doggedly hunting him across France. There’s also stories of love (sacrificial, first, and unrequited), loss, and a revolution that—despite the popular misconception—is not the French Revolution.
The new anniversary production utilizes the artwork of Les Misérables novelist Victor Hugo to replace the stage tricks that have been removed. A screen in the background reflects various paintings that represent everything from the ocean, an industrial factory, and the sewers of France. In many ways, this works better than the formerly spinning stage—it makes (spoiler alert?) Javert’s suicide scene far more impacting—but for some reason the various dates covered in the production aren’t announced. When a show utilizes a projection screen and covers a time span of 17 years, being kept up to date when we were jumping ahead in time would have been helpful.
Les Misérables employs a cast of dozens, but the success or failure of the show depends on the two men playing Jean Valjean and Javert. In the past I’ve seen a production where both roles were performed perfectly, and one where the actor playing Javert was so weak it was almost laughable that other characters would tremble in his presence. Luckily, this production gets the balance of the two adversaries just right. As Valjean, Lawrence Clayton conveys confliction about his past, but the determination to create an honest life for himself. As Javert, Andrew Varela is angry and intimidating, but with a vein of vulnerability that appears when he’s uncertain about how to conclude his career-long manhunt. When the two share the stage, they create scenes of high tension that also garner sympathy for two men who are simply trying to do what they think is right.
In a vast cast of impressive talent, the one misstep made is in the casting of Eponine. Chasten Harmon has a natural R&B/gospel quality to her singing voice, which would well serve any number of musical theater roles, but unfortunately, an 1830’s French pauper isn’t one of them. Every solo Eponine sings—and there are quite a few—is a bit jarring and sounds out of place in a show that depends on the ability for dozens of different voices being able to blend together easily.
Bottom Line: Les Misérables is a show that even the most casual musical theater fans tend to fall in love with, and the new 25th anniversary production should be no exception. Just try not to sing along with all the songs, no matter how well you may know them. It can be really distracting to those sitting around you. Trust me.