The new 'Les Miz': great visuals and music, and some weak spots

Less elegant, the updated version of "Les Miserables' playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue still has the strengths to be an experience that will live for years.

Crosscut archive image.

Justin Scott Brown (Marius, in front) and Ian Patrick Gibb (Jean Prouvaire) during the song "Empty Chairs."

Less elegant, the updated version of "Les Miserables' playing at Seattle's 5th Avenue still has the strengths to be an experience that will live for years.

When I went to see the original London production of Les Miz just a few months after it opened, I knew virtually nothing about the musical except that it was based on the novel by Victor Hugo and was the hottest ticket in town. From the moment the curtain rose, I and the rest of the audience were rapt. Colm Wilkinson was magnificent as the reformed thief Jean Valjean, his voice and his acting infused with a pathos and subtlety unusual for characters in a musical blockbuster. The “Master of the House” number stopped the show three times and other scenes, including the revolutionary march that closes Act I and Valjean’s opera-like aria “Bring Him Home” brought the house down.

Although it took a while for the London critics to warm to the show, audiences declared Les Misérables an immediate hit and it is still playing on the London stage, making it the longest running musical in the world. The reaction in New York to the first American production was equally thunderous and by now more than 60 million people around the world have seen one of the 21-language versions.

The reasons for such success are easy to understand. First and foremost is the glorious score of Claude-Michel Schönberg. Every song is so memorable that it’s hard to decide which one provides the musical and emotional climax. Writer Alain Boublil did a masterful job of paring Hugo’s masterpiece novel down to two core story lines — the tribulations of reformed thief Jean Valjean and the people’s “June Rebellion” of 1832 — while retaining its epic sweep. And his original French lyrics, co-written with Jean-Marc Natel, are simultaneously clever and moving. For the English-language version, Herbert Kretzmer did a brilliant job of matching English lyrics to Schönberg’s music, capturing perfectly the content and spirit of the original.

Given all this, it’s not surprising that last year producer Cameron Mackintosh chose to celebrate the show’s quarter-century anniversary with an updated version. Fans will be glad to know that one of the changes enhances the visual impact of the original. Though some of the scenes look more Dickensian than French, Matt Kinley’s new sets, based on Hugo’s own paintings (a revelation), are even more evocative than the originals by John Napier. Kinley has eliminated the turntable stage and uses more shifting panels, along with sophisticated new 3-D technology to recreate the sewers of Paris, the dark waters of the Seine, and, most effectively, a Paris street along which the revolutionaries march. The effect is a physical environment that looks simultaneously more dramatic yet more real.

The other changes, however, are less successful, most notably the altered orchestrations. Chris Jahnke has speeded up John Cameron’s original tempi so that many of the songs now feel rushed. The long notes that brought so many of the songs to a heartfelt conclusion are gone. Coupled with the cast’s tendency to clip the end of their words and some vocal weaknesses, songs like Fantine’s achingly sad “I Dreamed a Dream” lose some of their force. Fortunately, the music is so stirring that only someone extremely familiar with the score might notice.

Larger problems are the voices and the balance between orchestra and singers. Especially in the first act, every song is belted out so that, when coupled with the booming, brass-heavy orchestra, I felt assaulted. Fortunately, the second act is more modulated with haunting tunes like “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” and “Drink with Me To Days Gone By,” concluding with the soaring ensemble Finale that, justifiably, had the entire audience on its feet.

As to individual voices, J. Mark McVey’s lacks the sweetness and range of Colm Wilkinson’s and his acting is a little wooden, but his Jean Valjean is the overriding presence nevertheless. Betsy Morgan’s voice lacks the lightness necessary to convey Fantine’s fragility so that her scenes lack sufficient tragic import, and Jenny Latimer’s tremolo undermines the beauty of the adult Cosette’s songs. Chasten Harmon has a far too contemporary pop sound for a convincing Eponine although in the proper role, she’d be a powerhouse. On the plus side, Justin Scott Brown as Marius and Jeremy Hays as Enjolras bring poignancy to their roles as student-revolutionaries, and Andrew Varela, as Valjean’s nemesis Javert, has a deeply resonant voice that underscores his menacing presence. 

There’s no question this new “Les Miz” looks and feels less elegant than the version we have come to know and love, but the soaring beauty of Schönberg’s music and the visual richness of the overall production make for a stirring theatrical experience that will live on for years.   

If you go: Les Misérables (Les Miz), Fifth Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Avenue, through Aug. 27. Tickets $69 to $179; tickets at the box office, by phone at (206) 625-1900 or (888) 5TH-4TIX, or online at


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors