Les Miserables

Hugh Panaro gives an outstanding performance in the Walnut Theatre’s remarkably nuanced production of the epic musical.

Hugh Panaro in Les Miserables
(© Brett Thomas)
Hugh Panaro in Les Miserables
(© Brett Thomas)

Is there enough in the Walnut Street Theatre’s new production of Les Miserables to warrant “one night more” in the theater with Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel? The answer is a resounding yes, since director Mark Clements’ new production — aided by scenic designer Todd Edward Ivins, who evokes the cul-de-sacs and tiny streets of Paris sans turntable — boasts a host of terrific performances that make this well-worn musical seem surprisingly fresh.

The show’s chief asset is Broadway veteran Hugh Panaro’s robust, passionate, and delicately sung performance as Jean Valjean, the convict who must make a new life for himself all the while running from the doggedly unforgiving Inspector Javert (rendered powerfully, if sometimes woodenly, by Paul Schoeffler). Panaro, who has long scraggy hair and a Robinson Crusoe-like beard as the show begins, transforms remarkably over the17 years covered in the musical. After Valjean’s release from prison, the actor emerges with matinee-idol good looks that eventually give way to an elder statesman hunkyness that brings to mind Charlton Heston before his NRA days.

Among the supporting cast, perhaps most impressive is Christina DiCicco, whose Eponine is not only a tomboy, but also a very fragile young woman. DiCicco takes the hyperbole of “On My Own” and brings it to a new level of absolutes that can only be uttered by someone experiencing the pangs of a first love.

Equally charming are Josh Young and Julie Craig’s turns as the young lovers Marius and Cosette. Young has the stronger voice, delivering a potent “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” with heartbreaking intensity, but both actors capture the overwhelming desire that these characters have for one another. Thanks to them, the nod that Clements’ production gives to the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet does not feel trite, but rather unusually intense.

As Enjolras, the head of the student brigade hoping to stage a petit revolution, Jeffrey Coon delivers a fiery performance that’s matched by some of lighting designer Jeff Nellis’ showiest work. Gianna Bruzzese delivers one of the finest “Castle in the Clouds” imaginable as the young Cosette, and Danielle Leigh Rosenthal is equally impressive as the pre-teen incarnation of Eponine. (Clements’ staging makes particularly interesting use of this character.)

The major disappointments are Scott Greer and Dawn Spence’s performances as the scheming Thenardiers, which fail to elicit either uneasy laughs or creepy chills, and Jessica Bogart’s delivery of the doomed Fantine’s solos as American Idol-like power ballads. But one moves past these performances to focus on the positive aspects of the show.

Indeed, this is an impressively nuanced Les Miz — one which, while retaining the show’s grandeur, also seems incredibly intimate.

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Closed: July 13, 2008