AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Book by Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Directed by Laurence Connor & James Powell
Presented by Best of Broadway
SHN Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market St., San Francisco / (888) 746-1799

Reviewed by Judy Richter

It's hard to believe that "Les Misérables," the musical based on Victor Hugo's novel, has been around for 25 years. It originally opened in London in 1985 and made its way to New York in 1987. Touring productions visited San Francisco in 1989, 1992 and 2000.

Now it's back in San Francisco in a 25th anniversary, scaled-down production. Running a long three hours, including one intermission, it covers 17 years of French history starting in 1815. The central character is Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer), who was imprisoned 19 years for stealing some bread for his nephew. Released on parole, he found he was an outcast, so broke his parole, recast himself and became a respectable businessman. Eventually, though, his past caught up with him as a police officer, Javert (Andrew Varela), pursued him through the years.

Eventually he had a ward, Cosette (Lauren Wiley), and became involved in a student street protest that included Marius (Max Quinlan), who had become smitten with Cosette. The sprawling plot involves numerous other characters, most of them low-life, and events, all conveyed in quasi-operatic fashion, a style underlined in the staging by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Luckily the program provides a synopsis for people unfamiliar with the story to keep track of everything.

"Les Miz" has become one of the world's most popular musicals, and its London production is the world's longest-running musical. In its current incarnation, however, it lacks some of the dramatic power of earlier San Francisco productions. Rather than the impressive turntable set, this production, designed by Matt Kinley, is inspired by Hugo's paintings and relies heavily on projections by Fifty-Nine Productions, along with Paule Constable's lighting.

The music by Claude-Michel Schönberg has become familiar and even somewhat trite in spots, especially in Chris Jaynke's new orchestration. Still, it has some highlight numbers, including the comical "Master of the House," featuring the rascally couple, Mr. and Mrs. Thénardier (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic). Another is the poignant "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," in which Marius sings of his fallen comrades and which, when the show was new, was a sad reminder of the terrible toll being taken by AIDS.

The singing is quite good, especially by Lockyer as Valjean, Varela as Javert and Quinlan as Marius. In some cases, though, less than precise diction mars performances. The orchestra, led by William Johnson on opening night, also is good, but Mick Potter's sound design renders it and much of the production deafening. Earplugs are advised. The costume design by Andreane Neofitou, with additional costumes by Christine Rowland, works well.

Overall, the show is still entertaining. The opening night audience seemed to enjoy it, but it doesn't retain all of its original power.

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