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Les Misérables

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Dear Victor Hugo, 

 

Bonjour, Monsieur! Since you have been dead for the past 124 years, I thought you might be curious about what happened to your masterpiece, Les Misérables. You remember: that 1,200-page novel that Baudelaire hated and the Pope banned? The one about Jean Valjean, the beefy peasant who steals a loaf of bread and does hard labor for nine years, only to break parole and be pursued by Inspector Javert for two decades? The book I tried to read in high school, unabridged and in English, only to give up after page 520? 

Well, surprise! Your depressing, overlong melodrama inspired one of the best musicals of all time! What's a musical? It's a play with songs and dance numbers in it, although Les Miz is more like an opera with a few spoken words. Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil composed the "poperetta" in 1980. Who are they? Don't worry about it. All they've done since is build a fake helicopter over a fake Saigon. 

Before your novel could vanish into obscurity, this three-hour epic attracted a fanatical following and was performed all over the world. If you visited Broadway in the 1990s, you probably saw Les Miz, or at least Phantom of the Opera. This is the kind of serious, high-concept drama that wows audiences, and not just because there's usually a rotating stage. For better or worse, Les Miz helped change the very idea of musical theater -- from cute romantic comedies to bleak sociopolitical dramas. 

You'll be delighted to know that the Civic Light Opera, Pittsburgh's big-budget musical-theater company, has done an exceptional job with Les Miz -- partly because the stage doesn't rotate, eliminating the show's weary gimmick. The musical's solos are patently famous, and because they're so introspective, the actors are given the chance to act as well as sing. As Jean Valjean, Fred Inkley is appropriately desperate for redemption, even in old age. As the lovelorn tramp Eponine, Ashley Spencer hits all the right notes, vocally and emotionally. And Robert Cuccioli, as the villain Javert, is a mutton-chopped monster, commanding the stage with fascist precision. 

Like your novel, Schönberg's adaptation has its lard. There are too many characters, awkward transitions and pointless exposition, and the ending drags (no offense). But take heart: Les Miz is still a towering achievement, and the real show-stoppers -- "Bring Him Home," "On My Own" -- are timeless beauties. And by replicating almost every aspect of the Broadway production, director Barry Ivan has preserved its eloquence. Nearly 30 years after its Paris debut, and 147 years after you penned the book, Les Misérables is as powerful as ever. Et merci beaucoup! 

 

Les Misérables continues through Sun., July 19. Benedum Center, 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666 or www.pittsburghclo.org.

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