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Les Miserables makes triumphant return to Boston

Les Misérables

Directed and adapted by John Caird and Trevor Nunn.

Written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo.

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.

Colonial Theatre, Boston.

Through June 17.

By Scott Deskin
Arts Editor

The musical Les Misérables has been playing on Broadway and around the world since 1987. The child's face against the tri-color French flag, the wildly successful soundtrack, and general word-of-mouth have catapulted this stage production to one of the few musical successes of the late 20th century not penned by Andrew Lloyd Webber. I managed to avoid it until this past Thursday, when I put aside my petty anti-Broadway sentiments and attended the opening night performance in Boston (for its fourth local run).

This show isn't a worldwide success for nothing, and I have to agree that Les Misérables puts an imaginative twist on life and liberty in early 19th century France, as originally envisioned by novelist Victor Hugo. The protagonist, Jean Valjean (William Solo) is released on parole after 19 years' work on a prison chain gang, but he is trailed closely by police detective Javert (Richard Kinsey), always a reminder of Valjean's criminal fate. Even after Valjean breaks parole and makes a new life for himself as a factory owner and mayor, he is haunted by his past and a guilty conscience whenever Javert is near.

Valjean eventually assumes the care of one of his factory workers, Fantine (Jacquelyn Piro), and her daughter Cosette (Jodie Langel). Valjean rescues Fantine from a life of prostitution, but too late: Fantine dies and Valjean is on the run from Javert, who learns of the mayor's true identity. Once Valjean gets Cosette, the two flee to Paris and make a new life. Years pass, and old allegiances manifest between friends and enemies among a student-led insurrection against the government. Valjean, a symbol of an indomitable human spirit who cannot escape the shadow of the past, must look out for the interests of the adolescent Cosette while trying to make peace with the relentless, ubiquitous Javert.

The performances in the show are uniformly excellent, even though I couldn't identify much with Colette's character, whom I found too demure to elicit much attention. But the performances of all the other actors enhanced the production. As a pair of thieving innkeepers-turned-beggars, the Thénardiers (Kelly Ebsary and J. P. Dougherty) make a bawdy impression as opportunists who threaten Valjean's cover. Their daughter Eponine (Caryn Lyn Manuel) carries most of the weight in the middle of the show as the street gamin who yearns to be loved by one of the college students, Marius (Tom Donoghue). Donoghue, incidentally, is a youthful presence who reminds me of a young Michael Crawford - a least from my knowledge of the fresh-faced actor from late 1960s film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and Hello, Dolly!

The orchestral score is familiar, but never imposing. I have a small gripe against the intrusion of electronic keyboards into the music, but this doesn't diminish the vocal performances. Most familiar is Eponine's delivery of "On My Own" at the beginning of Act Two, whose theme recurs throughout the show. But the boisterous "Master of the House," led by the Thénardiers in their inn, is a crowd-pleasing number that begs for likability of the characters while showing their despicability - and manages to have it both ways. As for Valjean and Javert, Solo's delicate tenor and Kinsey's bass complement each other quite well as people whose obsessive knowledge of each other goes beyond mere friendship.

In short, Les Misérables is worth all the hype that has been bestowed upon it. The show's way of pointing to peace and redemption after a lifetime of misery and persecution is heartfelt: I could feel Valjean's aged character tugging at my heartstrings in one of the final scenes of the show. And, I suppose, that embodies the best I can expect from musical theater: to project 19th century romantic ideals into a 20th century context without compromising the joy and sadness of the miserable ones in society.