Les Miserables opens at the Buell; moved audience members weep at the finale

Les Miserables has been running for 25 years -- making it the longest-running musical, well, ever. I caught the show in 1999, about halfway through its decade-spanning run; at the time, I was living Perth, Western Australia, and the performance was staged in the basketball arena where Perth's professional team shot hoops. Honestly, I don't remember much about that show; we were in what is known Stateside as "the nosebleed section," so I couldn't see much. Mostly, I remember feeling super-awkward that my mother was sitting next to me when the whores entered the scene. And something about bread and prison. Obviously, it didn't make a huge impression at me back then -- but last night's Denver opening at the Buell? Totally different story.

This new 25th anniversary production was bigger and bolder than what I remember. (That could also be the venue -- the Buell is definitely a better place to watch a story unfold than a basketball arena.) The staging and scenery are brand-new; the scenery is inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself. Les Miserables is an ambitious story, to say the least; it tells the story of the 1832 June Rebellion in France, and any tale about war (or any Victor Hugo novel, for that matter) includes an array of characters and plotlines to follow. The set and scenery definitely help pull the production into a seamless whole, and some scenes -- like the suicide of Javert -- are so amazingly rendered that they drew gasps even from this technology-saturated generation. Others, like the scene featuring the students in the ABC Cafe, use lighting and set to give the impression of sunlight streaming through a window onto a group of philosophizing intellectuals.

I'd also forgotten that this is an operatic musical -- the characters never stop singing -- but it was still easy to follow dialogue and scene across the stage. As Jean Valjean, J. Mark McVey rose to the occasion -- and so did his voice; when McVey released the final high note in "Bring Him Home" at the barricade, the audience held its breath, then erupted in applause and whoops that didn't die down until the orchestra intervened. Andrew Varela as Javert made a wonderful law-abiding villain, beautifully conflicted in his final bridge scene. And Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic as Thenardier and Madame Thenardier provided comic relief and less-conflicted villainy in their roles.

Two performances that especially stood out were the adorable Ethan Paul Khusidman as street urchin Gavroche and Chasten Harmon as Eponine. Although I knew how the story was supposed to unfold, Harmon's voice, body language and facial expressions were so evocatively painful and lovely that I wished for a moment Marius would give her a chance over Cosette. Sue me.

I walked into the theater without any expectations, and what I found inside blew me away. The rest of the audience felt the same way; by the time Jean Valjean gave Cosette his confession and passed into the arms of the ghostly (and beautiful) Fantine, leading into the company grand finale, I saw several audience members wiping tears from their eyes. It's a powerful and beautiful performance, and it only runs through Saturday, September 10, so catch it while you can; visit www.denvercenter.org for ticketing and schedule information.

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Temple Buell Theatre

14th and Curtis streets
Denver, CO 80204


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