`Les Mis'erables': a different breed of musical

``It isn't a musical about nothing,'' the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic supremo, Trevor Nunn, has stated publicly. ``It has several social messages and demands audience involvement.'' ``Les Mis'erables'' is indeed a different breed of musical. The show, now on stage at the Barbican Center, the London home of the world-renowned Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), is adapted from French novelist Victor Hugo's lugubrious 19th-century masterpiece of the same name.

Set against the backdrop of revolutionary France, it's the story of ex-con Jean Valjean, just released from prison after 19 years. Brutalized by his sentence, he has learned to hate. Society shuns him. Only a humble village priest will offer food and shelter. In exchange for this benevolence, Valjean steals from among the priest's few possessions -- and runs. The ex-con is stopped by police, returned to the scene of his crime, only to have the goodly priest welcome him warmly with a pair of beloved silv er candlesticks. He gently chides Valjean for going so suddenly and leaving the best of his ``gifts'' behind. This is the only man of unalloyed kindness Valjean has ever known. He is touched to the core. It changes his life.

The rest of the tale is about Valjean's resolve to stay on the road to spiritual redemption -- a road paved with great hardship, deep moral conflict, and aching personal sacrifice as he is forever pursued by the punctilious Inspector Javert for breaking parole.

But there is far more to this melodramatic story than can be conveyed in the simple telling. Hugo meant it to be as much a parable of humanity itself as an impassioned portrait of the outcasts of the society of his day: the gradual evolution, both socially and individually, from darkness to light.

``The Glums,'' as it's been dubbed, has been eagerly awaited in the theater world here, for two reasons. First, it is an ambitious attempt to expand the musical genre into the realm of unremittingly serious subjects -- something that's in the forefront of many British theater directors' minds at the moment. Second, Nunn, the show's director, and designers John Napier and David Hersey are the same hugely talented trio who dazzled theatergoers with the breathtaking panache of ``Nicholas Nickleby,'' ``C ats,'' and the soon-to-hit-Broadway extravaganza ``Starlight Express.''

And as yet another beguiling stage spectacle, this latest effort does not disappoint.

Told in rock operatic style and using a recent French musical adaptation (by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Sch"onberg), the libretto has been translated and heavily reworked into English idiom. The staging, however, is purely home-grown. And here the RSC has pulled out all the stops. For 31/2 hours, the story unfolds with thrilling poetic fluency. Lit almost entirely in the variegated sepia hues of a 19th-century French painting, vignettes appear and disappear, and time and locations change with merely the clockwise or counterclockwise movement of the center stage. Elaborate pieces of scenery materialize, seemingly from nowhere, suddenly tilting to an angle or revolving completely to mold to the action for truer visual perspective.

Staging aside, Colm Wilkinson, as Valjean, and Roger Allam, as Inspector Javert, are the undisputed stars of the production, while American actress Patty Lupone (Tony Award-winner for the title role in ``Evita'') also makes an impressive showing. But performances all around are among the finest.

Another British blockbuster?

Despite its many and glorious virtues, ``Les Mis'erables'' isn't perfect. The 1970s-rock-musical-style score and lyrics are competent, but not outstanding, and they rely heavily on the abundant vocal talents of the cast, plus full-throttle amplification, to make them come alive. There are some soaring moments, as when Miss Lupone mournfully belts out ``The Dream I Dream'' (surely destined to be a hit single). But those moments just don't happen often enough.

Then there's the question of substance. In a way, Nunn and company are victims of their own ambition. By promoting the show as a new kind of musical, they've created grand expectations. And from that point of view, many critics -- on this side of the Atlantic, at any rate -- have been disappointed. Hugo's ``Les Mis'erables'' is a complex story. But this filleted version is little more than an appetizer, and the deeper messages of the book are largely lost. Pathos at times becomes bathos. In short, th ere is legitimacy to the charge that the RSC is trying to pass off middlebrow spectacle for more-highbrow fare.

Yet the show works. As a spectacle, it's exquisite; as a musical, it engages audiences viscerally far more than most. That it doesn't replace its literary namesake is not a major drawback. Indeed, that's as it should be.

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