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July 24, 2014

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Review: Reimagined ‘Les Miserables’ at Smith Center is an emotional powerhouse

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Kyle Froman

Devin Ilaw (“Marius”) performs “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in “Les Miserables.”

‘Les Miserables’

Briana Carlson-Goodman ( Launch slideshow »

I watched the blockbuster and beloved musical “Les Miserables” for the first time in the summer of 1996 in San Jose, Calif. It was my first major musical, and the sweeping story of forgiveness, redemption and love moved me to tears.

Fast forward 17 years — and two other viewings of “Les Miserables” — and the heart of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s emotional-powerhouse “Les Miserables” beats as strong as ever, this time in the form of Cameron MacKintosh’s new 25th anniversary production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.

As Connor told Robin Leach in an in-depth interview posted Wednesday, this “Les Miserables” has a new look and feel. While the backdrops that reminded of charcoal paintings and the use of video (especially in the tunnel scenes) were inventive, subtle and interesting, the rotating stage that most “Les Miserables” audiences have come to associate with the production was missed in Act One.

But shortly after Act Two began, the performances — emotive (and soaring) vocals and acting — and familiar story took center stage, and the iconic staging was forgotten. There are many standouts in this exemplary cast.

Peter Lockyer is commanding as main character Jean Valjean, and his “Bring Him Home” is perfection. I’m still in awe to this day of any actor and/or singer who can perform this challenging song in falsetto. Genevieve Leclerc is heartbreaking as Fantine (her signature song is “I Dreamed a Dream” made popular by Susan Boyle and is the role that won Anne Hathaway an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role this year).

Briana Carlson-Goodman’s “On My Own” as Eponine is the showstopper and couldn’t epitomize unrequited love and heartbreak any better. Jason Forbach as Enroljas is dashing, masculine and sexy (actors who portray Enroljas tend to fit this mold), and Devin Ilaw as Marius has a pitch-perfect and pure operatic voice. The staging and vocals of his “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” are haunting and mesmerizing.

This reimagined production was much more violent toward the prostitutes than I remember, and the multiple (and excruciatingly emotional) death scenes were especially dramatic and jarring. “A Little Fall of Rain,” the duet between Eponine and Marius, triggered a full-on onslaught of tears. To not be moved means you’re heartless and made of ice. (To the uninitiated of “Les Miserables,” go to LesMis.com for a synopsis of the story.)

As with opening nights, there were minor mishaps — microphones went out briefly at least three times, the volume could have been a little louder, and some of the staging dropped with a thud and or suffered squeaking wheels onstage — but no matter. “Les Miserables” kept the audience captivated and in their seats until the end — there was no running for the exits — and the standing ovation was immediate and unanimous. All a rarity in theater.

Connor and Powell’s “Les Miserables” is the best production yet. It moved me to tears many times, and it won’t be my last time in a “Les Miserables” audience.

“Les Miserables” is at Reynolds Hall in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday. For tickets and more information, go to the Smith Center website.

Don Chareunsy is senior editor for arts and entertainment of the Las Vegas Sun.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

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