Eva Knott 3:13 a.m., May 23
A touring "mega-musical" is almost a contradiction. By the time some reach San Diego they have the pared-down look of a road show designed more for mobility than performance.
The 25th Anniversary's touring Les Miz has a cramped, letterbox quality: it doesn't use the full stage at the Civic. But what it does use is extraordinary. After a while you take for granted that scenes will change as fast as you can turn a page; that spectacles will kaleidoscope from scratch; and that the vaunted effects will be as big as a bus and truck show can make them.
As when shafts of light pierce the smoking barricade and slay each rebel with a searing white glow. Or when the chronically obsessive Inspector Javert leaps from a bridge on the Seine and falls and falls and may be falling still.
25 years ago, the New York staging used a revolve with no video background. The touring version is based on Victor Hugo's sooty, Industrial Era sketches (which recall William Blake's "Satanic Mills"). Video projections make the streets move. Thus when Enjolras (an excellent Jason Forbach) leads students to the barricades, they don't march one-step forward, one-step back, the signature step of the original. They step in place, as others swing forward, and the street recedes behind them.
Except for Timothy Gulan's Threnardier, who tiptoed through "Master of the House," the leads are solid, the voices strong. As Jean Valjean, Peter Lockyear's sustained intro's a tour de force, and he does full justice to "Who Am I?" and the iconic "Bring Him Home."
Andrew Varela not only booms Javert's "Stars," he offers hints for what could drive a man to hound another for almost two decades (in his own mind Javert is an avenger, not a villain, and may be atoning for something he did long before - in fact, just about everyone in the story has done something in the past that needs a reckoning). Shawna M. Hamic's Madame Thenardier's as unrepressed as Javert is shut down.
The story still moves so swiftly that first-timers might not pass a post-curtain, Les Miz quiz. The rapid-fire pace prefers emotional jolts to factual sense. Like riding a wave, and a big one at that.
When Les Miserables ("the downtrodden") premiered in London and then in New York, many critics lambasted it for being too over-the-top; one labeled it "unashamed schmalz," another, "stultifying." And it is outsized. But that's the point. The first act's a gathering storm that builds revolutionary fervor (and when was that not over-the-top?) to the point of confrontation. After the battle, Act two softens into disillusionment, a picking up of what's left of the pieces.