Les Miserables, good name, bad opera

Les Miserables
Wednesday, Nov. 27- Saturday, Jan. 4
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays
7:30 p.m. Sundays
2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, and
Wednesday, Nov. 27 and Thursday, Jan. 3

Americans just never know when to quit. More than 47 million people worldwide have seen “Les Miserables” since its debut in 1985. What can you say? Nearly 35,000 performances could wear any show out.

“Les Mis” makes its seventh D.C. appearance this holiday season, playing through January at the National Theatre. This show is, of course, a jewel to those who have never seen it, but for “Les Mis” buffs, the performance is disappointing at best.

“Les Mis” begins in the darkness of a French prison-yard, where convict Jean Valjean (Randal Keith) has served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. After skipping out on his parole, Valjean seeks to make a new life for himself, becoming a man of repute, noted for his generosity. He is not, however, able to avoid the troubles of 19th century France.

Valjean tries to balance his responsibility to raise an orphaned child, Cosette (Amanda Huddleston) while partaking in revolution. He also must endure the terror of living as a hunted man. Throughout the story Valjean is never safe from the unrelenting gaze of Inspector Javert (Steven Tewksbury), an overly zealous prison guard who has made it his life’s work to track down the escaped prisoner.

Though Keith and Tewksbury, playing Valjean and Javert, offer a few intensely emotional characterizations, they deliver, on the whole, relatively flat performances. Their voices, while apt, simply do not carry the opera.

The performance’s true character is showcased by the peripheral figures. Dallyn Vail Bayles plays the revolutionary Enjorlas with an unparalleled vitality, leading a group of students to their deaths. With an ardent, booming voice Bayles seduces the cast to revolution, standing as the paradigm of French strength and vigor.

Similarly well cast, Jessica-Snow Wilson plays the part of Eponine, a young woman of the street, bent on the ideals of love and revolution. Wilson sings with a complex emotional candor, delivering each line with the whole of her being. Her performance of this tragic heroine is more than commendable, it is the show’s saving grace.

Not all of the supporting cast deserves such accolades. The street urchins Thenardier (Michael Hayward Jones) and his wife Madame Thenardier (Jodi Capeless) fall painfully short of expectations. Usually these characters provide the show’s comic relief, offering a beacon of light in an otherwise depressing tale. In this performance, however, Jones and Capeless have chosen a to play the characters with a dark and villainous edge. Though this is an admirably bold choice for the actors, it breaks the opera’s normal flow, leaving the audience without the show’s necessary comical reprieves.

For “Les Mis” novices looking to get their feet wet, the National Theatre engagement might do just fine. But, if you’re one of the 47 million who have seen “Les Mis” somewhere else, you’d do better to sit at home and hum the show’s theme. That way you can remember the show in its past glory, lending no mind to the beast it has become.

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