`Les Miz' - spectacular as a road show. Touring version has all the polish and panache of the original

It's on the road. ``Les Mis'erables,'' that eight-time Tony Award-winning mega-musical from the makers of ``Cats'' and ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' is officially on its United States tour. First stop - a six-month engagement in Boston.

Make no mistake, ``Les Miz'' is grand, gloriously schmaltzy, giant-size entertainment from some of the best in the business.

It is also Les Showbiz.

This $4.5 million musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's 19th-century epic novel broke ticket sale records in London, New York, and now Boston. By 1991 the show, which originally opened in slightly different form in Paris in 1980, will be playing in 26 cities around the globe. Road companies are already up and running in Tel Aviv, Budapest, and Sydney.

And then there is the marketing of Les Mis'erabilia, more than a dozen spinoff products - record albums, wristwatches, T-shirts - emblazoned with the show's doe-eyed waif logo.

All of which has raised anew the question of ``event theater'' - a manufactured rather than ingenuous stage success. Producer Cameron Mackintosh has publicly bristled at the term, despite the critical hazing of the production when it premi`ered in its English-language version at the Royal Shakespeare Company's (RSC) London headquarters. Nonetheless, most industry observers credit Broadway's current rise in attendance - a 17 percent increase over last season - to the musical's blockbuster status. (The show has been sold out since it opened in New York last March.)

For the American road version of ``Les Mis'erables,'' Mackintosh and the show's creators, RSC directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird, have left well enough alone; the show remains greater than the sum of its parts.

There is still John Napier's giant Erector set scenery - two Louise Nevelson-like sculptures that inch in from the wings to form the junk-shop barricade over which the students scramble during the 1832 Paris uprising. There is still Claude-Michel Sch"onberg and Herbert Kretzmer's melodically cagey score - a nonstop sound bed that manages to be apocalyptic and pop opera-ish all at once. There is still David Hersey's chiaroscuro lighting that sculpts the stage with light and shadow that owes as much to the high-tech laser wizardry of ``Cats'' as it does to French Impressionism. And Andreane Neofitou's costumes still evoke painterly tableaux ranging from Millet to Manet.

But most important, there remains the rousing ensemble work culled from this enthusiastic new company by those masterly showmen, directors Nunn and Caird. Theirs is shameless, electrifying stagecraft that sweeps ``Les Mis'erables'' along its path from pathos to patriotism to bawdy humor and stops just short of hucksterism. This is visual and aural theater that, unlike the duo's ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' works its particular magic not through narrative line (Hugo's 1,200-page novel becomes a rip-snorting synopsis), but via sensorial panorama. (Ironically, in the smaller confines of Boston's Shubert Theatre, Nunn's direction seems tighter, more sure-footed, and the sprawling production gains much-needed intimacy.)

And what of the new principals, the real key to any road show's success? This reviewer missed seeing Colm Wilkinson's apparently show-stopping performance as Jean Valjean, Hugo's heroic everyman, in both the London and New York productions. But William Solo, Mr. Wilkinson's Broadway understudy, could hardly be a more moving catalyst for this epic drama of political passion and human aspiration. Mr. Solo possesses an appropriately burly physique, an angelic tenor voice, and considerable acting ability. His rendition of ``Bring Him Home'' will wring tears from the most obdurate.

Herndon Lackey is very nearly Solo's equal as the steely-jawed archenemy, Javert. Mr. Lackey imbues his soliloquy, in which Javert articulates his unrelenting moral code before leaping to his death, with Faustian overtones.

Other cast members are more or less memorable. Diane Fratantoni is vocally fine as Fantine, the noble prostitute. John Herrera is oddly pallid as the rabble-rousing leader Enjolras. Tamara Jenkins is a clarion-voiced Cosette, Valjean's ward. Hugh Panaro as Marius and Ren'ee Veneziale as Eponine are unfortunately pure rock-opera material in both manner and voice.

``Les Mis'erables'' is in Boston through April. The show will reopen in Los Angeles in May.

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