`Les Mis'erables' on stage: a spectacle and more

Les Mis'erables Musical by Alain Boublil (book) and Claude-Michel Sch"onberg (music), based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Mr. Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Directed and adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. For imaginative scope and magnitude, ``Les Mis'erables,'' at the Broadway Theatre, fulfills long-building expectations. The latest version of a Paris original applies the sophisticated devices of advanced stage technology to the inherent appeal of an old-fashioned spectacle. The Paris and London successes of the latest Royal Shakespeare Company mega-venture have already been reflected locally in the most practical terms: an advance sale of more than $11 million even before Thursday night's opening.

But spectacle alone would not be enough to explain the vast popularity of an essentially somber rock opera. All of John Napier's stage revolves and massive set pieces, plus David Hersey's magical lighting and Andreane Neofitou's array of period costumes would be mere embellishments without the drama's driving central conflict. That conflict pits the saintlike Jean Valjean (Colm Wilkinson) against the implacable police inspector Javert (Terrence Mann). Their contest, symbolizing a struggle between two concepts of duty and moral obligation, binds together the subordinate strands of the complex plot.

``Les Mis'erables'' was dismissed by one critic as a postcard reduction of Victor Hugo's epic 19th-century novel. Even at three hours' length, it could be scarcely more than a digest. But through its succession of arias, recitatives, ensembles, and choruses, the adaptation preserves the bold outlines of the work that inspired it. The story deals with fundamentals of human drama: the ordeal of a principled man in search of his own identity; law and order versus compassion and justice; the spectacle of oppressed humanity striving against oppression. Furthermore, as a narrative, it beckons the spectator with drama's age-old question: What happens next?

The adapters have dealt selectively with various high points of the Hugo novel. The scenes of the piled-up barricade and the students' abortive uprising are dealt with in considerable detail. On the other hand, the unforgettable courtroom moment when Valjean reveals his identity (thus facing further imprisonment) to rescue a falsely accused ``Valjean'' passes almost as a vignette.

In its simplified form, ``Les Miserables'' balances the dramatic equation of good and evil. Valjean is a man seeking to atone for early crimes (one of which was the theft of a loaf of bread). Javert is the relentlessly unbending enemy of all criminals, whom he regards as irredeemable. The acute perception of these distinctions lies at the heart of Mr. Wilkinson's magnificent performance as Valjean and Mr. Mann's fierce portrayal of Javert.

Adapter-directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird have surrounded the essential conflict with the kinds of eye-filling effects reminiscent of ``Cats'' and ``The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.'' Sometimes the effects are dazzling, as when Valjean carries the wounded Marius through the Paris sewers. On the other hand, Javert's suicide plunge into the Seine is accomplished with the simplest of theatrical devices. ``Les Mis'erables'' abounds in surprises.

The score is agreeably varied and melodic. Besides Valjean and Javert's soliloquies, the musical treatment includes such typical numbers as Fantine's pensive ``I Dreamed a Dream,'' the sardonic ``Lovely Ladies'' and ``Master of the House,'' young Cosette's poignant ``Castle on a Cloud,'' the stirring ``Do You Hear the People Sing,'' Eponine's wistful ``On My Own,'' and Valjean's full-hearted ``Bring Him Home.''

With Robert Billig as conductor, the score is admirably served by a cast that includes Randy Graff (Fantine), David Bryant and Judy Kuhn (Marius and Cosette), Leo Burmeister and Jennifer Butt (the despicable Th'enardiers), Michael Maguire (Enjolras), and Donna Vivino (young Cosette).

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