‘Les Miz’ brings its operatic style to the Arsht

Les Misérables, that most operatic of musicals, has come back to South Florida, this time for a here-and-gone six-day run at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts.

The production is the 25th anniversary edition of Les Miz, the same dazzlingly reconceived version of the beloved show that played the Broward Center for the Performing Arts two years ago.

The recent Oscar-nominated film version of the musical won it new fans and pleased many old ones, although some hated the movie’s addiction to close-ups of stars emoting madly as they sang. So it’s a pleasure to revisit Les Miz in the theatrical environment of the Arsht’s Ziff Ballet Opera House, and to hear it sung by staged-trained performers who can do justice to the Claude-Michel Schönberg-Alain Boublil-Herbert Kretzmer score.

With the exception of former Miamian Andrew Varela as Inspector Javert, the actors playing the principal roles have changed since the show visited Fort Lauderdale. That Varela has stayed with the production is a blessing for Miami audiences: His renditions of the misguided lawman’s two big numbers, Stars and Soliloquy, are magnificent.

Based on Victor Hugo’s great 1862 novel, Les Misérables takes its characters and audiences from 1815 to 1832, as Javert pursues convict-turned-hero Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer). After doing 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, Valjean is unable to get his life restarted. When he comes to a moral crossroads, an act of mercy transforms him. But Javert, who does not believe in change or redemption, continues pursuing Valjean until one of them dies.

The story is enriched by the other characters whose lives intersect with Valjean’s. There’s Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc), the poor, desperate woman who sells her body to support her illegitimate daughter Cosette (Ava Della Pietra). Two thieving comic innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic), “care” for the girl by making her a virtual slave, until Valjean keeps a promise to Fantine and rescues the child. Years later, a grown-up Cosette (Lauren Wiley) falls instantly in love with a rebellious student, the equally smitten Marius (Devin Ilaw), who is the object of unrequited love from the street-smart Éponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman).

Les Misérables demands operatic chops from many of its performers. Lockyer has the voice to handle Valjean’s challenging songs (though he strains to deliver the highest, softest notes of Bring Him Home), but his acting is a bit stiff, more in the style of an old-school opera star who plants himself and lets the booming vocals fly.

Leclerc isn’t initially impressive as Fantine but becomes more moving as her character’s life falls apart. Wiley, Ilaw and Carlson-Goodman deliver an achingly beautiful Heart Full of Love. Gulan and Hamic go way overboard (Hamic, especially) as the Thénardiers. As the student leader Enjolras, Jason Forbach starts out loud and grows deafening, draining any subtlety from his character’s stirring songs. Scene stealer Marcus D’Angelo nearly makes off with the musical as the plucky urchin Gavroche.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, working with an inspired design team, have taken Les Miz into the 21st century, freeing it from the huge turntable that was the original production’s signature. Instead, set designer Matt Kinley, inspired by Hugo’s own paintings, utilizes ramshackle moving towers and state-of-the-art projections to create cinematically shifting environments. Javert’s breathless pursuit of Valjean and a wounded Marius through subterranean Paris, and Javert’s last desperate act, are stunningly realized.

Les Misérables, which will return to Broadway next year, has lasted almost 30 years and moved millions for multiple reasons. Though it isn’t flawless, the production at the Arsht demonstrates plenty of the reasons for the musical’s enduring appeal.