Whether you like or dislike "Les Miserables" you should consider giving it another look. Maybe especially if you dislike it.
The 25th anniversary staging of the gargantuan musical, now at the Van Wezel Performing Art Hall, has been drastically re-tooled. In the process, it has become more human and more intimate, but at the same time more majestic.
Perhaps best of all, it has become more comprehensible.
Even longtime fans of "Les Miz," who tend to be fiercely devoted, admit that the narrative had always been a weak point. The novel was sweeping and fast-paced, for more than 1,000 pages. The action encompassed decades. Young characters grew old and died; grand historic events intermingled with poignant personal moments.
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Telling that story in a three-hour musical was probably an impossible task, especially when every word is sung and many words are lost to the melody or are drowned out by the orchestra, and the classic version was a muddle.
Great songs and great stagecraft kept audiences coming back. The new version has all those, but also a much more coherent narrative. It's still confusing at times, but never leaves the audience lost. It's hard to define exactly why the story seems so much stronger. It's essentially the same show, with all the same songs and all the same characters. A few minor scenes have actually been cut.
Easier to identify are the reasons why this edition of "Les Miz" is so much more powerful as a theatrical experience. The turntable that was the original production's centerpiece -- either an innovative dramatic device or a clumsy gimmick, depending on your point of view -- is gone. In its place gorgeous projected backdrops and towering sets inform us of changes in scene and era.
The sets are inspired by the paintings and drawings of Victor Hugo, the author of the novel. The effect is moody and evocative -- so much so that it's astounding that it took 25 years for anyone to think of using Hugo's paintings in the musical.
The backdrop offers some stunning visual effects including an awe-inspiring cinematic sequence in the sewers in the second act.
But because this is a more human and less mechanical staging of "Les Miz," it comes down to the cast to really make it work, and the cast in the current production shines vocally and emotionally.
Perhaps the meatiest role is Javert, the duty-driven cop who chases petty criminal Jean Valjean through the years. Andrew Varela plays the role with appropriate bombast, but summons the requisite angst for his Act I solo, "Stars," and makes it the evening's moving musical moment.
Peter Lockyer wields a gorgeous tenor voice as Jean Valjean, but he never seems to age; even with gray hair at the show's end, he sings and acts like a young man.
Briana Carlson-Goodman, as Eponine, doesn't have quite the vocal consistency of the others, but when she's at her best (which is most of the time) she's stunning.
"Les Miz" is overflowing with subplots, and not all of them work, even in this staging. Eponine's unrequited love for Marius, which has the potential to be profoundly sad, doesn't have much effect at all.
But still, this staging ameliorates most of the flaws of the classic productions, and augments a lot of its strengths. Members of the "Les Miz" cult will not be turned off, and nonmembers may finally see what all the fuss has been about.
Details: March 5-10 at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 North Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday. Information: 941-953-3368 or www.vanwezel.org.
Marty Clear. features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7919. Follow twitter/martinclear