Lawrence Clayton in Les Misérables
(© Deen van Meer)
Lawrence Clayton in Les Misérables
(© Deen van Meer)
Les Misérables, the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's landmark 1862 novel that originally played Broadway for 16 years and has proven to be a smash all over the world, has received a fashionable makeover in honor of the show's 25th anniversary. Now on view at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse prior to a full national tour, the production is not only expertly directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, but thoroughly well-sung and acted with the utmost passion.

First and foremost, the new staging foregoes the revolving turntable that has become identified with Trevor Nunn and John Caird's original production. As now designed by Matt Kinley, flying and moving pieces of scenery are supplemented by impressionistic digital projections inspired by Hugo's own sketchings.

The production is also marked by numerous new staging choices that are detailed, revealing, and sensitive to the text. It opens with a large group of prisoners laboriously rowing a ship as officers look on with whips. In the confrontation scene between former criminal Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert after the prostitute Fantine's death, the pair fight with a steel chain that Javert originally swings at Valjean, and Valjean then uses to choke Javert. In "Master of the House," the evil inkeeper Thénardier goes so far as to swipe a guest's pet parrot and stick it in the meat grinder.

The revolving turntable is only missed during the barricade scene, especially since young Gavroche's death must now take place offstage. And although the musical's various locations and time periods are still noted in the program, they are no longer projected onto the set as had been done previously.

As conducted by Peter White, the new 14-piece orchestrations sound rich and evocative. As Valjean, Lawrence Clayton has a powerful voice, so much so that the audience applauds "Bring Him Home" before it is even finished. He colors much of his singing with a bluesy tone, and stresses Valjean's sensitivity and sense of guilt, especially after having turned away Fantine in her hour of need.

Andrew Varela brings a chilling presence to Javert that is only broken immediately prior to the character's emotional breakdown. Betsy Morgan gives a marvelous performance as Fantine, marked by complete physical fragility and overwhelming mental anguish. One of the production's most haunting images is Fantine begging Javert for mercy by holding up her letter about Cosette to him in total desperation.

As Éponine, Chasten Harmon is less believable than her co-stars, although she takes the character's physical pain while dying to quite an extreme. Jeremy Hays brings an idealistic 1960s spirit to the role of Enjolras. While Michael Kostroff stresses Thénardier's entrepreneurial side, Shawna M. Hamic makes for a coarse and vivacious Madame Thénardier, so much so that she amusingly primps herself up upon first noticing Valjean.