On Theater: Touring silver jubilee production of 'Les Mis' is a must-see

How do you improve on what is, arguably, the greatest of all musicals? In the case of "Les Miserables," now in residence at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, the process is not so much improvement as enhancement.

This touring 25th anniversary production of the landmark epic may challenge familiar assumptions (the circular, rotating stage is gone, for instance), but the additions — particularly the gigantic rear-screen projections that add cinematic depth — bring an overwhelming sense of immediacy to a show marked by some magnificent voices and visceral presentation.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have produced a heart-wrenching spectacle, amplifying the familiar Victor Hugo concept of a street uprising in 19th century Paris and deepening its attendant love story. This is a show that only improves with age.

At its core — as the paroled convict Jean Valjean, who rises to become a wealthy town mayor and adoptive father to the orphaned girl whose mother he shunned — Peter Lockyer is a soaring physical and vocal force. His determination and strength of character — particularly in his plaintive solo "Bring Him Home" — lift the entire show to greater heights.

As his adversary Javert, the lawman obsessed with capturing Valjean and returning him to prison, Andrew Varela is acceptable as an actor but magnificent as a singer, as attested by his fervent aria "Stars" in the early going. Varela, who towers over the physically stronger Valjean, dominates his scenes with raw vocal power.

The tragic character of Fantine, tossed into the ashcan of Paris' wretched street people early in the show, is brilliantly interpreted by Betsy Morgan, whose rendering of "I Dreamed a Dream" will stir the heart. As her grown daughter, Cosette, Lauren Wiley is a striking look-alike for Morgan and excels with her winsome purity.

Max Quinlan elevates the role of the young, love-stricken Marius with a strong, dedicated portrayal. The rebelling students are a fiery lot, stirred to a boil by the ultra-dedicated Enjolras, a superior enactment by Jason Forbach. Joseph Spieldenner's perpetually drunken Grantaire lightens the mood considerably.

Comic relief is demanded and "Les Miserables" serves up a pair of aces in the Thernardiers, scratching out a disreputable living as innkeepers and street scavengers. Timothy Gulan is a robust "master of the house," while Shawna M. Hamic is particularly memorable as his bawdy, corpulent wife, virtually stealing her scenes.

As their daughter, the streetwise Eponine, Chasten Harmon's features are often masked by her long, unruly hair, but when given her moment with the solo "On My Own," she blossoms brilliantly. Joshua Colley and Marcus D'Angelo share the role of the young, defiant street thug Gavroche.

Technically, "Les Miserables" is a sweeping panorama by Matt Kinley who draws inspiration from Victor Hugo's paintings. It's the added dimension of rear-screen projections – particularly in the Paris sewer scenes — which engulfs the audience and conveys a sense of immediacy.

Finally, it's gratifying to be able to hear and understand all of the lyrics in the score — particularly after the failure in that department of the Center's most recent show, "American Idiot." Kevin Stites' orchestra is strong and dominant, but never at the expense of the show's vocal projection.

"Les Miserables" has been absent from these parts for far too long, and its return in a gloriously re-imagined format is welcome indeed at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

TOM TITUS covers local theater for the Daily Pilot.

If You Go

What: "Les Miserables"

Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, and at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays until June 24

Cost: Tickets start at $40

Call: (714) 556-2787 or visit http://www.scfta.org.

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