Les Misérables is a huge, sprawling musical filled with emotional songs that tell the story of Victor Hugo's novel. The plot centers on the merciless pursuit of a freed prisoner, Jean Valjean, by a bitter police detective, Javert. In the course of the chase, which continues over several decades, we encounter everything from revolutionaries at the ramparts (the revolution in question is a failed student revolt of 1832, not the French revolution of 1789) to an orphaned, golden-haired tot, daughter of a reluctant and desperately poor prostitute. This tot — as all readers of nineteenth-century novels know — will grow into a beautiful, golden-haired woman and marry the handsome and principled young hero, a revolutionary named Marius, all under the loving eye of the virtuous though still endangered Valjean.
With this much action, there's not a lot of room for character exploration or complexity; except for Valjean and Javert, the people on stage are ciphers. Ciphers who sing a great deal — there are only three spoken words in the entire musical — and almost always at the highest pitch of passion. But since the music is beautiful and the Arvada Center cast boasts several magnificent voices, that's pretty much all you need for a thrilling evening.
Les Misérables played on Broadway for years and was revived to mixed reviews in 2006. Director Rod A. Lansberry has poured energy and resources into this production, assembling a fine eight-piece orchestra under conductor Martha Yordy, finding a way of creating the many required venues without the famed turntable set (Brian Mallgrave's design is workable and evocative), and bringing together a talented group of actors. There are a couple of botched moments, however. For example, while Fantine lies in bed dying, singing pathetically and stretching out her arms, her little daughter is on stage quite close to her, playing with a doll, and you can't help wondering why the heartless child is ignoring her mother. If the girl had been placed just a little farther away, you might understand sooner that she's just a vision. And putting Marius in a wheelchair after the disastrous battle is awkward, but not nearly as awkward as some of the wigs, particularly the ghastly tentacles drooping around Valjean's face during the last scene.
Presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts through October 19, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org.
As Valjean, Randal Keith is everything you could want — except still playing him. After breaking his ankle on stage, he's been replaced by Drew Frady. But Markus Warren is equally terrific as the revolutionary Enjolras, physically expressive and emanating fierce energy; Stephen Day is a commanding Javert. Though Dan Fosha's Marius is less convincing, when Fosha unleashes his honeyed tenor, all is forgiven. In an inspired move, Lansberry has partnered Wayne Kennedy, who usually performs with Boulder's Dinner Theatre, with Beth Flynn; they're hilarious, both singly and together as the Thenadiers, a pair of sinister innkeepers. As for the members of the male chorus, almost any one of them could assume the lead in a show less crowded with talent.
Unfortunately, the leading female roles are not as well cast. Neither Valerie Hill as Fantine nor Amy Board as Eponine reveals any depth or soul, and their voices are less impressive than those of the men. Elizabeth Welch has a beautiful soprano; it's not her fault that poor Cosette, as written, is little but a simpering blond puppet.
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I've seen Les Misérables only once before, and that was the mammoth, original touring production with its clouds of fog, expensive technical effects and whomping great set; I remember almost nothing about it but that set. But within the intimate confines of the Arvada Center, the story comes to life. I left the theater feeling as if I'd been immersed in a vast sea, riding great crests of sound and emotion, falling suddenly into the deep green hearts of waves, and tossed finally onto the shore, battered but mildly euphoric.