Actor J. Mark McVey has played Jean Valjean, the convict who breaks parole and becomes a successful, if still hunted, businessman in "Les Misérables," thousands of times on Broadway.
As he shows in the revamped version of the Victor Hugo-based musical that landed Tuesday in Minneapolis, he is easily among the best actors to inhabit that role. McVey displays his prodigious vocal gifts throughout the show, topping himself in number after hair-raising number.
For me, his most perfect performance is his delivery of "Bring Him Home," which is set at the barricades where Valjean has come to lend moral support to students rising up against the government in 19th-century France. Sitting on the students' makeshift barrier, McVey's Valjean offers up the song for Marius (Max Quinlan), who has been courting Cosette (Jenny Latimer), whom Valjean raised.
But "Bring Him Home" is really a prayer for all the young men and women whose idealism and enthusiasm have been met by bullets from the authorities and silence from the general populace. McVey is ethereal and chill-inducing, his tenor distilling both beauty and pain.
If you are not already a devotee of the musical composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, this robust new version by director James Powell and Laurence Connor should make you one. The re-orchestrated music is delivered with clarity and verve thanks to conductor Robert Billig. (It sometimes is a bit loud as well.) The story, which orbits themes of justice and redemption, idealism and death, and, of course, love, is much more cleanly told.
I was partial to the older version, in which a turntable set that was always moving added a sense of churning inexorability to Valjean's journey. The creative team finds ways to sustain the show's momentum, including designer Matt Kinley's effective video projections. They have captured the soul of "Les Miz."
The best part of this production is the cast. Andrew Varela's Javert is a man of unrelenting, principled righteousness. Latimer takes us sweetly through Cosette's delicate dreams. As her mother, Fantine, Betsy Morgan delivers with a full-bodied determination in a voice that sounds like it has swept the alleys of life. Chasten Harmon's Eponine is gorgeously fierce. And Richard Vida and Shawna Hamic provide great color as the thieving, over-the-top Thenadiers.
I liked the old "Les Miz" well enough to be worried about a creative team messing with it. But they have improved this popular musical, making it far more affecting.