“Les Miserables” have returned to where they came from, Paris.
This is the third attempt to popularize the worldwide hit in its own country: Previous incarnations were only moderately successful. In London, the musical has had an uninterrupted run since 1985, a West End record. On Broadway, it ran for 16 years. The original Paris production lasted a mere three months; a revival in 1991 closed after seven months.
No wonder the new production at the Theatre du Chatelet comes from the U.K. -- the tour started last December in Cardiff -- and uses, instead of the French original, the substantially expanded English version.
The reason for French indifference can’t be the story: Every school kid knows Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel and the adventures of reformed convict Valjean, his protegees Fantine and Cosette and their nemesis, police inspector Javert.
Educated Parisians also know that Valjean’s character is based on a real-life person, the petty criminal Francois Eugene Vidocq, who later helped to create La Surete Nationale, France’s equivalent to the FBI.
The fact is that the French have never warmed to musicals. In Parisian nightlife, they are a sideshow.
Even a Frenchman such as Claude-Michel Schonberg, who in a recent interview with the daily Le Monde prided himself on being related to the other composer of the same name, has been unable to change their minds. It doesn’t help that his music is trivial and Alain Boublil’s libretto full of platitudes.
At the beginning of his career, Schonberg dreamed of becoming an opera composer, and it shows: When Fantine, the dead mother, reappears in Act II, you are reminded of “Les Contes d’Hoffmann.” The trio of Valjean, Cosette and her husband Marius in the finale, crowned by a pious chorale, suggests a fondness for “Faust.”
Alas, Schonberg can hold a candle neither to Offenbach nor to Gounod.
If you don’t mind the shallowness of the music, you’ll enjoy a professional, visually striking show. It’s based on the London production, yet has different, atmospheric sets (Matt Kinley), inspired by Hugo’s own paintings. Unlike the Broadway Theater in New York, the Chatelet has no revolving stage but that doesn’t prevent constant scene changes.
Laurence Connor and James Powell, the directors, keep the huge cast in perpetual motion.
The costumes (Andreane Neofitou) nicely conjure up Paris under the July Monarchy (1830-48). The only anachronism is the red flag the students wave on the barricades: As we know from Delacroix’s painting glorifying the 1830 revolution, the banner of the rioters was the Tricolore. (The red flag came into fashion only under the Commune in 1871.)
“Les Miz,” unusually for a musical, has no spoken dialogue and virtually no dancing. So everything depends on the vocal qualities of the performers. They’re a mixed bag.
The best of the lot is Earl Carpenter’s sinister Javert. John Owen-Jones’s Valjean isn’t far behind: What he lacks in tonal beauty, he makes up for with a full-blooded presence.
The ladies are less convincing: Fantine (Madalena Alberto), who has the one big showstopper “I dreamed a dream,” sounds shrill. Her daughter Cosette (Katie Hall) is on the squeaky side.
They are both overshadowed by Lynne Wilmot’s delightfully wicked Madame Thenardier who provides the only moments of comic relief. Jon Robyns is a stentorian Enjolras, the student leader.
“Les Miserables” runs through July 4. Information: http://www.chatelet-theatre.com or +33-1-4028-2840.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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