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Les Misérables at Broadway Across America

Take away the spectacle of Les Miz and you're left with a musicalized version of a Cliff's Notes' Les Misérables

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Vive la révolution! Meet me at the barricade, comrades, and we'll overthrow the nasty French aristocracy!

But first, let's sing about it for three hours.

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, the fourth national tour of Les Misérables pulls into town as part of the PNC Broadway Across America series. The sweep! the saga! the spectacle! ... haven't necessarily made it onto the tour bus, but God knows you get a hell of a lot of music.

Les Miz (as we glitterati like to call it) was an entry in, and driving force behind, the "popera" musical-theater movement of the '80s. Beginning with CATS, these shows were entirely through-sung, with no dialogue and lots of lush melodies, intense romanticism and — above all — tons and tons of stage pageantry.

Taken from the Victor Hugo novel, Les Miz is about this guy named Jean Valjean, who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread and 17 years later is still being chased by Inspector Javert. (That Atkins Diet really screws you up.) Along the way Valjean adopts a little girl, dedicates his life to God and ends up fighting in a French Revolution that's not the one you're thinking of.

It's impossible to overstate what a worldwide phenomenon Les Miz has become. In some countries, theaters were built specifically to house the show; it's been on Broadway two different times; and now, of course, there's the movie.

I can't really say I'm a fan. Claude-Michael Schönberg's score is both overblown and underdeveloped and the English lyrics, by Herbert Kretzmer (original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel), are what is known as "serviceable." But it's a huge hit, so what do I know?

I also must confess that this tour leaves me cold. Touring productions are, by design, cut down and streamlined. It's an economic necessity. But the only thing CATS, Les Miz et al. have going for them is spectacle. 

Les Miz is known for its famous revolving stage and physical grandiosity. But this is Les Miz-lite; no revolve and limited proportions, with projections on the back wall meant as a replacement. Which turns out to be a problem: Take away the spectacle of Les Miz and you're left with, well, Les Miz — which, since it's based on a 1,300-page novel, is really only a musicalized version of a Cliff's Notes' Les Misérables.

Andrew Varela sings the role of Javert with a great deal of power and intensity, serving as a perfect counterpoint to the lyrical yearnings of Peter Lockyer's Valjean. I'd hate to be Genevieve LeClerc, who, playing Fantine, has to sing "I Dreamed a Dream," which I overheard many people in the lobby calling "the Susan Boyle song." But LeClerc has a great voice and does very well.

All in all, it's a very professional production of a somewhat reduced theatrical juggernaut.

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