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STAGE REVIEW : Long Live This Revolution : Musical: Heroes abound in a rousing and passionate 'Les Miserables' at the Pantages Theatre.

January 22, 1991|SYLVIE DRAKE | TIMES THEATER WRITER

Does older necessarily mean better or does it simply mean that things have more time to grow on you?

It's a good question to ask of the return of "Les Miserables." This touring production, with an entirely new company headed by Gary Morris as Jean Valjean, is a powerful edition of the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg musical based on the Victor Hugo classic. You have to hand it to those guys. They understand heroic.

And yet, something about the production that opened Sunday at the Pantages Theatre actually seems an improvement over the one that played the Century City Shubert in 1988-89. Is it the rococo decor of the Pantages itself that marries better with the romantic excesses of "Les Miz"? Or is it the stature of Morris' potent, if youthful Valjean? Whatever. There's a lucidity that makes the show's three-hours-plus running-time swifter and more palatable than one recalls from past experience.

"Les Miserables" was never exactly understated, either as a novel or in the sweep of Schonberg's rousing and passionate music. Even if less passionate in its English orchestrations than its French ones, it still sounds like a call to prayer or to arms whether or not it is either. In addition, events in the Persian Gulf cast a newly minted wistfulness over such emotional ballads as "Drink With Me to Days Gone By," "Bring Him Home" or Marius' rueful "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." It's hard to escape the parallels.

And probably undesirable. The whole idea at "Les Miz" is to allow oneself to be swept away by its larger-than-life events. From the musical's murky beginnings on the chain-gang and Valjean's first face-off with Inspector Javert, the power of that confrontation--of honor pitted against honor--resonates in the room.

It has a psychological stranglehold, not only on the men but on the piece. Much depends here on adroit counterbalancing, and Richard Kinsey's rectitude as Javert, his booming voice and precise, dominant presence are, pound per pound, those of a worthy opponent.

Beyond Kinsey and Morris, whose demeanor broadcasts strength and dignity and yet whose upper registers could melt steel, the show's juiciest morsels are the scuzzy Thenardiers--the maggots that infiltrate social order. This raucous, varmint-ridden pair, besotted by love of money, are ubiquitous cartoons at the sly hands of Drew Eshelman and Rosalyn Rahn, as his salivating wife.

Susan Gilmour's tender Fantine, Susan Tilson's empathetic Eponine, Peter Gunther's straight-arrow Marius and Aaron Metchik as an uncommonly spunky Gavroche make important contributions to the supporting cast.

The real stars of this show, however, remain its technical effects. The astute combined inventions of set, sound and lighting designers John Napier, Tony Meloa and David Hersey, respectively, formulate an echoy, smoke-screened universe of haunting images, none more breathtaking perhaps than the illusion of Javert jumping off a bridge into a watery whirlpool. (They cleverly reverse the process by \o7 raising \f7 the \o7 bridge \f7 to simulate a fall.)

The speed and efficiency with which Paris tenements keel over to form a student barricade--or grid-like projections stalking Valjean's progress through the Paris sewers--are at least as striking as any cinematic counterpart.

Ultimately, it is the totality of the onslaught, from those special effects to the Schonberg music, from the telescopic Boublil/Natel book to the Herbert Kretzmer lyrics, from the innate power of the Hugo characters to the pared-down ones in this version that make "Les Miserables" the most emotionally manipulative musical in memory. Next, that is, to Boublil and Schonberg's "Miss Saigon," expected on Broadway in April.

But that's another story.

Meanwhile, lovers of "Les Miz," will not be disappointed in the production currently on view. It cuts no corners and the towering presence of Gary Morris in the lead doesn't hurt a bit.

'Les Miserables'

Gary Morris: Jean Valjean

Richard Kinsey: Javert

Susan Gilmour: Fantine

Rosalyn Rahn: Mme. Thenardier

Drew Eshelman: Thenardier

Susan Tilson: Eponine

Kimberly Behlmann: Cosette

Peter Gunther: Marius

Aaron Metchik: Gavroche

The return of the musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Producer Cameron Mackintosh. Executive producer Martin McCallum. Directors/adaptors John Caird, Trevor Nunn. Executive producer/associate director Richard Jay Alexander. Original French book Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material James Fenton. Music Clude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics Herbert Kretzmer. Sets John Napier. Lights David Hersey. Costumes Andreanne Neofitou. Orchestral score John Cameron. Musical supervisor Robert Billig. Musical director Dale Rieling. Sound Tony Meloa/Autograph. Production supervisor Sam Stickler.

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