“Les Misérables,” on a Minneapolis stop that opened Tuesday, makes it plain why it has had such staying power.
The epic musical by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and book-writer Alain Boublil will certainly add to its tally of 65 million-plus worldwide viewership. It has a potent score that is tightly wedded to its plot. The music, conducted with great force by Lawrence Goldberg at the Orpheum Theatre, viscerally (and sometimes loudly) sweeps a viewer into this story of romance, law enforcement and attempted revolution in 19th-century France.
The orchestra, in fact, sometimes overwhelmed the actors at the top of the show on opening night at the Orpheum Theatre. But it all evened out in the end, with a new Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer) carrying the show on his sturdy shoulders and in his affecting tenor.
Adapted from Victor Hugo’s 19th-century novel, “Les Miz.” revolves around Valjean, who served 19 years as prisoner 24601 for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks parole and becomes a successful businessman and mayor who takes care of orphan, Cosette (Lauren Wiley). But he is haunted by his past, and by Inspector Javert (Andrew Varela).
Sometimes shows become so successful, they veer toward self-parody. “Les Miz” is not there but you can see it creeping in that direction.
The production, by directors James Powell and Laurence Connor, has more cinematic elements, not only from the orchestral volume, which reminds one of a sitting in a movie, but also by the use of animation and the projection of the title of the show after the prologue.
Fortunately, the actors invest their well-known roles with freshness. Lockyer replaces the formidable J. Mark McVey, who played Valjean thousands of times, including in the last “Les Miz” to hit the Twin Cities less than two years ago. This production returns to Broadway next spring.
Lockyer nails his most important song, “Bring Him Home,” Valjean’s sung prayer at the barricades. He invests it with beauty and emotion.
Varela gives Javert a commanding, martial stature. He shows us a man blinded by his commitment to the law, even as it encrusts his soul.
“Les Miz.” has moments of comic relief by Timothy Gulan and Shawna Hamic as the Thenardiers.
Part of what gives this show its staying power is that its themes seem contemporary. It is set in a time of extremes, with harsh punishments for seemingly minor infractions, even as social divides get wider.
It’s like a musical about a 19th-century version of the Occupy movement, but with guns and a much better score.