DES MOINES —
Les Miserables is justifiably known as one of the great musicals of the last quarter century. Now, the 25th anniversary staging has landed in Des Moines.
The musical's greatest strength lies in two characters: Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Valjean's struggles, both with himself and others as he transforms himself from a bitter ex-criminal to an admirable and responsible citizen make him the story's hero.
But, in order for a hero to be truly great, there must be a great villian. And Javert is one of the best, for his actions are not driven by malice but by his fidelity to law.
Javert (Andrew Varela) is a spiritual ancestor of Sgt. Joe Friday. His focus on just the facts means only two things matter. One: Jean Valjean was convicted and paroled. Two: Valjean has broken his parole. Thus Valjean is his prey out of duty.
As Javert is driven by duty, so too is Valjean (Peter Lockyear). He seeks redemption in pardoning others and ransoming their lives as a bishop once ransomed his. He arrives too late to do this for Fantine (Betsy Morgan), but rescues her daughter Cosette. He saves Marius () from death in a failed insurrection out of love for Cosette and, in doing so, prevents the revolutionaries from killing Javert.
The cuts necessary to bring an epic book to the stage reduce the detail to many of the characters. The women, Fantine in particular, are sharply reduced in depth. The exception is Eponine, daughter of the loathsome Thernardiers. Her love for Marius and her nobility (a quality completely absent from her parents) is truly moving. And Lauren Wiley performs the role well.
The central characters all deliver their songs well, using both power and tenderness. It is rarely more in evidence than in "I Dreamed a Dream," or "Bring Him Home."
While the music is the driving force for the story, it is easy to forget how important acting skills are for this production. This cast does that extremely well. Minor gestures or an emotion flashing across the face convey much between lyrics.
The use of paintings by Victor Hugo, the book's author, as backdrops works better than one might expect. They pair well with technical tricks that scroll the image to give the illusion of movement. And it adds an almost indefinable veracity to the specifcially French setting of the performance.
In all, the 25th anniversary of Les Miserables will not disappoint longtime fans. And newcomers will find themselves engaged in one of the great stories of world literature. It runs at the Des Moines Civic Center through October 7.