As one of the few people on the planet who has never seen the musical phenomenon that is Les Misérables, I eagerly approached Tuesday night's grand opening of the newly revamped show at the Winspear Opera House at the AT&T Performing Arts Center, where it opened on the Lexus Broadway Series. The presenters made an effort to recreate the excitement of the opening night of the Dallas Opera season a few months ago, complete with a red carpet and photographer. The sold out opening night audience was filled with an air of excitement usually reserved for the appearance of a celebrity.
The production is re-imagined from the version everyone knew so well for a quarter of a century. Since I never experienced the original, I cannot comment on the changes. However, this set (designed by Matt Kinley) looks unsuitable for this stage. Perhaps this is because the touring company must be able to fit into alternately small and massive arenas, such as the Music Hall at Fair Park, where they would have played if the Winspear were still on the drawing boards. Two large lighting trees that frame the stage partially blocked the view from my seat.
Gloomy projections, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo (author of the novel on which the show is based), serve as scenery. These projections are most effective when they move to create a feeling of traveling. For example, when the chorus marches forward and when Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey) carries the wounded Marius (Max Quinlan) through the sewers under Paris, the projections move backwards so the cast appeared to be moving forward while they walked in place. They also create a dark and foreboding sense of despair and doom that hangs over the proceedings, reflective of Valjean's own dark secret. The battle behind the barricade is a true coup de théâtre, with set, sound and lighting combining to make this scene the most memorable of the show.
The reduced and reconceived orchestrations still manage to sound like there are many more players in the pit than the 18 brave souls that make up the tour orchestra. Two sampling keyboards carry most of the burden and their sounds are amazingly realistic. The most astonishing is the sound of the harp. It required a trip to the pit to see for myself that a harp wasn't there before I was convinced. The additions of two recorders and a sampled harpsichord add some blessed relief from the blast as well as sounding reminiscent of the historical period.
However, the show is so completely over-amplified that it matters little who is playing what. While I realize that this is a touring show that must be prepared for any acoustics, you would think that they would have toned it down, or even eliminated it, in the splendid opera house that is the Winspear. Such was not the case.
The singers shout most of the time, pumping out strained vocal sounds into their microphones at maximum levels for extended periods. The chorus blares constantly. The few quiet reflective moments stand out by contrast. In fact, Valjean's hushed anthem "Bring Him Home" is more thrilling than all of the bellowing in the big finales. Add over-amplification to over-singing and it all begins to blur.
For the big-moment junkies, this wave after wave of massive sound is much like spending a couple of hours on a roller coaster at Six Flags. It matters not at all to the audience that this myriad of big moments constantly retools the same three musical ideas. They never seem to tire of the climb up to the pinnacle and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg never disappoints.
Schönberg's background is as a songwriter and the songs are what does best in Les Mis (which have lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer). What he does in-between the songs is less effective. Long and arid conversational music ranges from unobtrusive to inadvertently hilarious, such as an occasional tumpt-ta-ra after a big announcement. Was it not for a few common chord progressions (most wearingly the movement from the tonic to the relative minor), 90 percent of this music would vanish. While that paucity of harmonic language is not noticeable in the shorter song forms, by the end of the evening even different music sounds similar. This is not to deny the effectiveness of Schönberg's score, but the difference between "effective" and "great" music is a chasm Les Mis doesn't cross.
The libretto (by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel) is a disaster of trite rhyming couplets and bereft of character development. The best thing that can be said about it is that it furthers the plot along its creaky way.
The singers are all excellent Broadway voices, with the women belting in chest voice and the men singing in bel canto opera-ish style, although only J. Mark McVey as Valjean and Andrew Varela as his nemesis Javert could hold their own on an operatic stage. Jeremy Hays, as the rabble-rouser Enjolras, and Max Quinlan as the love-struck Marius are also fine singers. These four do not over-sing to the same degree as the remainder of the cast and thus deliver the best vocalism of the show. Jenny Latimer as Cosette also sings without pushing and using chest voice, but she has a constricted sound that gets more noticeable in her upper register.
None of this really matters, or is even germane, to the legions of fans of Les Mis or the ecstatic audience that cheered every thrilling moment on Tuesday evening. Nor will it matter to all of the audiences that will see this show as it tours the world any more than it has to audiences over the past 25 years.
As far as a purely theatrical experience goes, Les Mis hits a home run. You just have to relax and enjoy it for what it is and not be disappointed when it falls short of what it could have been.