Gone is the massive turntable on which French villagers, student revolutionaries, and the fugitive Jean Valjean trudged for miles without moving even two yards forward. Scrapped are the mating dumpsters that formed the climactic barricades of Les Misérables, where the raffishly unintelligible little Gavroche and the cheerfully pathetic Éponine are martyred for the causes of liberty and true love. The new Les Misérables at Belk Theater is leaner, relying more on people and projections instead of machines. While these economies - and a perceptible slimming of the book - are likely to be viewed as sacrilege by devotees of the original Broadway and touring versions, they make for a tighter, less wearisome musical.
If the principals of previous touring versions were buried in the mighty machinery, that would serve as the reason why they didn't shine as brightly as the current corps. But I honestly believe the stronger voices and actors were in Charlotte. Titanic and puritanical with his wiry combed-back hair, Andrew Varela is a wondrously malignant Javert, the policeman who implacably pursues Valjean - and when he sings his power ballads, "Stars" and "Soliloquy," even diehard Terrence Mann worshipers are likely to be pleased. Staging of Javert's valedictory has been radically changed, arguably for the better if you aren't viewing it from balcony height.
Decisively upstaged, Peter Lockyer still gets the final bow as Valjean, the redeemed criminal who served 19 years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread. Far less fearsome than Varela - he's wholesome enough, in fact, to host America's Favorite Home Videos - Lockyer is ethereal and powerful singing Valjean's signature ballad, "Bring Him Home." But Timothy Gulan steals additional spotlight from him as the wily Thénardier, Cossette's abusive foster father, more vicious and less irritatingly comical than anyone I've seen before in the role.
The women, probably due to the discreet script surgery, seem blander as a group, so Éponine's pluckiness stands out in bolder relief in Briana Carlson-Goodman's vivacious portrayal. Certainly her obsession with Marius seems justified whenever Devin Ilaw woos his beloved Cossette or bursts into song, but too little of Valjean's sweet protégé remains for Lauren Wiley to help us solve the mystery of what the student revolutionary sees in Cossette.
Little lacunae still bestrew Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's condensation of the mammoth Victor Hugo novel. We don't get the full details, for example, on how Valjean's conviction for petty theft stretched out to 19 years of servitude. Valjean's transformation into potent industrialist and town mayor is also left in shadows, and the politics of the student uprising are no clearer than the backdrop of Puccini's Tosca. But I do think the details on how Valjean violated his parole are too important to be omitted - even in the playbill synopsis.
The projections are very much in the style of the engravings that accompanied the original 1862 edition of Les Misérables, and the Belk curtain has given way to very apt reproductions of Hugo paintings that greet us when we arrive and return for intermission. In fact, the inspiration of Hugo's paintings is credited for Matt Kinley's new set design. With increased emphasis on newly minted projections by Fifty-Nine Productions throughout the evening, most effectively in the famed sewer saga. I was puzzled that there were no projected titles to mark the leaps in time and place that occur in Act 1.
Sound design by Mick Potter only grew fierce a couple of times on opening night, but the soloists were potted and controlled flawlessly. Lighting by Paule Constable was useful in the opening prison tableau, spotlighting each otherwise unlocatable convict as he soloed, and maintaining Hugo's moody gloom ever afterwards. Fresh supertitles would be helpful whenever the company sings as a group, but that's a lament that can be applied universally to contemporary musicals.
As for how much true Les Misérables believers will cry at this revamped version, I cannot testify. Even with its new orchestrations, Claude-Michel Schöenberg score has never grabbed me, and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer can only lift the generic ballads and anthems so far. I can say that I've never seen a more passionate performance of Les Misérables. This cast obviously believes in what they're doing every night in every city.