The new "Les Miserables" musical hasn't changed where it matters most. Strong vocals ride the wave of rousing Claude-Michel Schonberg music that seeps into your memory and won't let go. With songs that have risen to pop-culture status and an Oscar-nominated movie version still out there, the Victor Hugo saga of Jean Valjean's lifelong quest for redemption in 19th-century France can still sweep a theater audience, particularly a first-time audience, off its feet.
For those who have seen it multiple times, changes in the touring show now at the Benedum Center are evident, but unless you can't get that iconic turntable set design out of your head, it's easy to be carried along on the new designs, starting with projected crashing waves from a ship. The "Prologue" introduces convicts at the oars, grunting the warning, "look down, don't look 'em in the eye," as cruel jailers watch with ready whips.
Convict Jean Valjean, played by the youthful Peter Lockyer with vigor that suits the character known for his physical strength, has a verbal smackdown with his nemesis, Inspector Javert, that launches their relationship as prey and hunter. It's a potent start to the action ahead.
The switch to the story of Fantine (Genevieve LeClerc), a young woman forced into prostitution to support her daughter, seems to go by in a flash. Fantine's heart-wrenching "I Dreamed a Dream" suffers, for me at least, from having become a pop standard, overplayed in the voices of Susan Boyle and Anne Hathaway.
The first act is most in focus when Andrew Varela's Javert is on the scene. He ups the ante with a powerhouse rendition of "Stars," the relentless inspector's vow to never rest until he sees Valjean back behind bars. Valjean's commitment to parenting Fantine's daughter, Cosette, keeps him grounded, but Mr. Varela's imposing Javert keeps him ever on the run.
Valjean, a man whose initial crime was to steal a loaf of bread, saves Cosette from the clutches of crude con artists, the Thenardiers -- played with gusto by the comic duo of Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic. (If you are of a mind to bring children to the show, be aware that Fantine's descent and life at the Thenardier inn gets vividly lewd.)
The roiling cauldron of Hugo characters comes to a boil when we are fast-forwarded from 1823 to 1832 Paris and follow the band of student rebels plotting an uprising against the oppressive monarchy.
The young men have a worthy leader in Jason Forbach's Enjolras, who stands in steadfast contrast to his love-struck friend, Marius (Devin Ilaw). One sight of the now grown Cosette (Lauren Wiley) and Marius falls hard.
Just before intermission, the audience gets a wake-up call when the students bring on the battle cries of "The People's Song" and "One Day More," creating an atmosphere such as when your alma mater's fight song is played at a home game against a hated rival.
The anthems continue to build as the Thenardiers daughter, Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman), finds herself on Paris' mean streets "On My Own," helping Marius to woo Cosette but all the while pining for his love.
There's no skimping on talent or trimming of roles for the updated tour, which lists 40 characters plus ensemble (a few performers double up).
A change in tempo of some earlier songs speeds the pace, as if the actors are rushing to beat the usual three-hour finish (it ended at just under three hours, including intermission, on opening night Tuesday). A 16-piece orchestra joins in the cause of pounding immediacy or soaring inspiration, as songs may demand.
Paule Constable, who designed the lighting for "War Horse," here incorporates targeted lights that are more harsh than bright, putting the griminess of Paris streets and the downtrodden's costumes into raw focus. For backdrops, Victor Hugo drawings are projected as ghostly impressions of streets and sky and used by designer Matt Kinley to great effect in showing movement and depth, particularly when the scene moves from the rebels' barricade to the sewers below the street. It's at the barricade, when the battle reaches its inevitable climax, that a "Les Miz" vet might miss the turntable stage that was a revolutionary design element when the show burst on the theater scene in the mid-1980s.
When "Les Miserables" turned 25 in 2010, producer Cameron Macintosh decided to tweak the pop opera created by Mr. Schonberg with Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel and translated by Herbert Kretzmer. This tour competes with an oft-aired 25th-anniversary concert and memories of productions past, plus the movie that did so well at the Golden Globes on Sunday.
A conceit of the film is that the singing is performed live, although a better description is a live performance captured on film. "Live" theater exists for an intimate moment in time, with measurable space between audience and performer.
Live on film vs. live on stage came to mind when listening to Mr. Lockyer bring his talent to bear on "Bring Him Home," a song with deep emotional resonance and demandingly high notes. In this production, he is positioned at center of the barricade and from there, his plea extends to all the youngsters ready to offer up their lives for a cause.
Moments like that are why "Les Miserables" is the world's longest-running stage musical and has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries. Fans come back again and again; an oft-overheard conversation at the Benedum on Tuesday was, "The first time I saw 'Les Miz' was ..." or "My first Jean Valjean was ...."
If this 21st-century production proves to be your first, you're off to a good start.
Sharon Eberson: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1960.