That revolutionary zeal

Times Staff Writer

Defending the barricades isn’t an official Olympic sport. Still, audiences who opted for “Les Miserables” at the Hollywood Bowl over the Beijing Games telecast this weekend managed to witness plenty of athletic activity, mostly in the form of strenuous belting and big, hammy acting.

The semi-staged concert production, which ran through Sunday, was an extravagant spectacle that had all the subtlety of a bayonet to the stomach. Fans of the beloved musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg were surely expecting nothing less than an epic pageant filled with sweaty warfare and emotional earnestness.

By those measures, the Bowl production delivered in spades, thanks to a cast whose revolutionary zeal seldom waned. Victor Hugo’s characters are so familiar by now that they can easily dwarf the actors who inhabit them. As the ex-convict Jean Valjean, J. Mark McVey didn’t exactly make the role seem fresh again, but he managed to hit his share of vocal home runs, most impressively with the songs “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.”

Equally magnetic was Brian Stokes Mitchell as his nemesis, Inspector Javert. The Tony-winning performer assumed a permanent scowl and enunciated his lyrics like a drill sergeant. Though he seemed slightly awkward at first, the baritone soon found his groove and plumbed the depths of his character’s obsessions with melodramatic brio.


But the show’s biggest moments belonged to the supporting cast, which featured a few hot young Broadway stars.

As Marius, the young revolutionary who falls in love with Valjean’s daughter, John Lloyd Young brought intelligence and vocal warmth to a role that can often feel corny and insipid.

And in the role of Eponine, Lea Michele (“Spring Awakening”) gave her character’s thwarted love for Marius the requisite dramatic and vocal heft, especially in her big show-stopper, “On My Own.”

Concert stagings of musicals usually can’t escape a disembodied, greatest-hits feeling, and the Bowl’s “Les Miserables” was no exception. This tour bus ride made no claims to great artistry or even dramatic coherence, and Richard Jay-Alexander’s direction served that approach well with a speed that moved from one big set-piece to another.


Using an abridged score, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, conducted by Kevin Stites, did a serviceable job, though strangely, it felt overpowered by the vocals, which were amplified to sometimes deafening levels.

In the end, the Boublil-Schonberg aesthetic of big sounds and big emotions proved to be a nice fit for the Bowl, where nuance is often swallowed up by the night.

Programmers should seriously consider the duo’s “Miss Saigon” for a future season.

It’s an even bigger, more bombastic musical -- and the helicopter traffic over the Bowl would feel appropriate for once.