How do you update a theater classic? Well, the short of it is that you don’t. That much, at least. The 25th-anniversary production of one of the world’s most produced musicals, Les Misérables, arrived at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre looking much as it did in its originally produced form, which was first launched on the theater circuit in London way back in 1985.
There are tweaks to this version, to be sure, the biggest being that the whole thing has been stripped down…a bit. (This production runs in L.A. through July 31, then tours other U.S. cities through next June.) The legendary revolving set is gone, replaced by less intricate yet still stunning sets inspired by the iconic paintings of Victor Hugo, who wrote the novel on which Les Miz is based. Some of the orchestrations are shortened, and the show comes in at a swift three hours — a feat for a production that originally pushed four.
What stays the same, of course, is what you’d expect: the show’s story, the songs, and the enduring characters. There’s no new surprise or twist to discuss here — Fantine still dies, as does Éponine, as does (and this isn’t a spoiler, if you have any sense of this show) nearly everyone else. What endures is Les Miz‘s audience-galvanizing spirit, which leads to great performances.
J. Mark McVey, who has played hero Jean Valjean more than 2,900 times in performances around the world, takes home the prize for stealing the show with a tour-de-force performance, particularly with his showstopping version of ”Bring Him Home” in Act 2. The rest of the company doesn’t disappoint, either, with Shawna M. Hamic’s Madame Thénardier delivering spot-on comedy, and Chasten Harmon’s Éponine building slowly toward a version of ”On My Own” that is nuanced and inspired.
So, let’s re-ask the question: How do you update a theater classic? Like this. A?