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'Les Miz' goes from frantic to fascinating

Production does full justice to its rich score when it stops trying to knock our socks off

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

I saw two versions of “Les Miserables” Tuesday night at Belk Theater, and they met precisely at intermission.

The first act of the national tour rushed by in a flood of words and set changes. Sped-up tempos drained songs of emotion, and expository lines were gabbled at top speed. (Though not garbled: The cast has fine diction.) Theatergoers got no chances to reflect on powerful moments – such as “Stars,” Javert’s ringing anthem to rigidity – before the orchestra rocketed off to the next number, and the next backdrop shot on from the wings or plopped down from the air.

Seventeen minutes later, after intermission, the show found a relaxed rhythm. At once, the musicians did full justice to the multi-hued score. Singers, relieved of the need to keep up with a frantic metronome, dug deeper for the meaning of their words. Love bloomed at a gentle pace, not as the equivalent of time-lapse photography. Javert’s madness and Jean Valjean’s calm and Marius’ new maturity gained full weight, while “Les Miz” made its full rousing impact.

The production, which embarked on a 25th-anniversary tour of America last year, emphasizes the show’s main weakness in the first half and main strength in the second.

Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel has been condensed to 165 stage minutes (150 in this speedier version), and the result is unavoidably episodic.

Bam! Jean Valjean gets out of prison, steals silver goblets, gets forgiven by a bishop and put on the path to righteousness. Boom! He’s the mayor of a town and owner of a prosperous factory, where a dying employee begs him to care for her orphaned child. Wham! He rescues the girl from the swinish Thenardiers and their seedy inn and takes her to Paris.

We’re already absorbing a mass of information. So when it comes at us out of a fire hose, we drown. Yet the show has deeply affecting songs and scenes; given time to unwind, those almost never fail to bring tears to fans. (They are legion: This run is so thoroughly sold out that Blumenthal Performing Arts inserted a page into the program, warning that tickets bought from scalpers may be voided and unusable.)

Devin Ilaw makes an unusually strong impression as Marius, perhaps because Marius often makes no impression: In the wrong hands, he simpers and seems callow. Ilaw sings soaringly and has thought about his role: “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” isn’t just a lament for absent friends but the haunted cry of an angry man.

Peter Lockyer’s Valjean and Andrew Varela’s Javert are well-matched adversaries equipped with powerful voices and stage presences. Lockyer shows Valjean’s tenderness, rage and steely spine; Varela grows from a peevish bureaucrat to a man gnawed by doubt.

They underline sentiments in act one – everyone does – but fit beautifully into the reflective second act. So does Timothy Gulan’s Thenardier, who seems to be playing to a stadium-sized crowd before the break and develops a taut, ferocious wickedness after it. Even Genevieve Leclerc’s Fantine, who must zip through “I Dreamed a Dream,” returns for a touching cameo at the end.

It’s a pleasure to hear more than a dozen instruments in the pit (real strings and brass!) when they’re not trying to catch a train. Shrewd use of rear projection efficiently prevents the need for a cumbersome set; I don’t think you’ll miss the famous turntables.

And directors Laurence Connor and James Powell add a fine detail I haven’t seen in half a dozen previous outings, including the Broadway show in the ’80s: The student Grantaire (talented Joseph Spieldenner) mans the barricades but is a cynical alcoholic; even in his few lines, he expresses bitter contempt for his friends’ illusions. When this version of “Les Miz” gives us moments like that, it scores.

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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