Sep. 24, 2005. 12:32 AM

Even for the jaded, Les Miz still raises goosebumps


Les Misérables

By Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Until Oct. 22 at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St, W.; Oct. 25-Nov. 5 at the Canon Theatre, 244 Victoria St. 416-872-1212.

As Adam Jacobs began to sing "Empty Chairs At Empty Tables" during last night's opening performance of Les Misérables at the Princess of Wales Theatre, I understood why this show can still move an audience 20 years after its first performance.

The poignant lyric about young people who had lost their lives in a struggle for freedom suddenly became the soundtrack to a newsreel in my mind as I thought of Tiananmen Square, Kosovo, Rwanda, Ground Zero and far too many other modern barricades where blood has been spilled in the last two decades.

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg went right to the heart of Victor Hugo's novel and brought much more than the plot onto the stage. They understood that this great book is about a quest to find meaning in the face of almost overwhelming adversity.

"Who am I?" the haunted Jean Valjean keeps asking and at the end of three hours he finally knows. He is a human being who has learned the ultimate message: "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Over the years, I must have seen Les Misérables over a dozen times. This current production may not be the very best, but it still delivers an honest, effective rendition of the show that will prove a decent first introduction if you've never seen it and will not suffer too much by comparison if you've loved the piece before.

Jason Moore is the man in charge of preserving the original intent of Trevor Nunn and John Caird's production and he does an exemplary job. The staging is crisp, the transitions fluid and the pace sufficiently brisk.

The orchestra under R. Andrew Bryan plays with vigour, but I have to confess that the amount of synthesizer use in the adapted orchestrations grates on the ear and I miss the original sound.

Ultimately, the show is an engine that drives ahead with relentless force, but the quality of individual performances is what takes a production from good to great and in this case, the blessings are mixed.

Fortunately, the two leading roles are in fine hands. Randal Keith is a moving Jean Valjean throughout, with a voice that can swoop or soar as needed and an innate sense of goodness that keeps the character from being cloying. His rendition of "Bring Him Home" is more openly impassioned than others have been and it gives the song a renewed power.

Keith is matched well by the Javert of Robert Hunt, who proves a worthy adversary. Hunt has a ringing voice and a sturdy stage presence, but his secret weapon is the belief he has in his own character. He never treats Javert as a villain and the story keeps a nicely resonant depth. The conflicted passion he brings to "Stars" drew substantial applause.

I also liked the angular energy of Victor Wallace Enjolras, a revolutionary whom you could actually picture on the barricades, and Adam Jacobs is a moving Marius, even if his voice's vibrato can throb too much on occasion. Melissa Lyons has a real commitment to Eponine, but her readings are often overly contemporary and her big solo, "On My Own," is defaced by some American Idol-styled vocal gymnastics.

Joan Almedilla is blandly unmoving in the sure-fire role of Fantine and her lacklustre singing of "I Dreamed a Dream" means that the show lacks its first big emotional wallop. Another serious misfire occurs with that evil duo, The Thernadiers. These two are supposed to be the bottom line on how evil and corrupt the world can become. It's true that they're meant to amuse us with their cynical behaviour, but they must shock us as well.

Norman Large and Jennifer Butt only skim the surface of the dark side of this duo, with no lasting resonance. An important piece of the show's fabric is missing.

And yet, when the great ensemble moments come, Les Misérables is still capable of raising goosebumps on the most jaded theatregoer. The initial power of Victor Hugo's vision and the honest way it was brought to the stage by the original creative team will surely endure another 20 years, as, unfortunately, the world sees many more empty chairs at an ever-growing number of empty tables.

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