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The Fugitive Kind: The story of Jean Valjean has run from literary fame to spectacular stage success.

'Les Misérables' finds enduring drama on the dark side of Paris

By Philip Collins

AN IMMENSELY successful musical play by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and author Alain Boubil, Les Misérables is reminiscent of a war epic. There's only a moment or two of active combat, but the ongoing pursuit of saintly fugitive Jean Valjean by police commandant Javert keeps the issue of class injustice in the forefront.

Cameron Mackintosh's touring production of Les Misérables made an explosive debut at the Center for the Performing Arts on July 30 (where it is running through Aug. 11) that has all the force and brilliance of his original Broadway staging, including tenor Robert Evan, who played the role of Jean Valjean for years on Broadway.

It is a massively scaled spectacle that unfolds with cinematic agility. Ingenious interplays of staging and score make Les Misérables soar through its three-and-a-quarter-hour playing time--which is a reasonable length in light of Boubil's choice to use Victor Hugo's 1,200-page novel of the same name as source material.

Set in Paris during the early 1800s, Les Misérables bears out its name in settings of abject squalor and unrest. Schönberg's music brings glistening presence to the story's darkest corners, while remaining true to emotional conditions. Strategically paced allegros based on driving rock and funk rhythms complement an array of stunning ballads. Kudos also to orchestrators John Cameron and Seann Alderking for their lustrous symphonic dressing.

Schönberg's economy of musical resources serves the story well. His concise melodic profiles wrap around Herbert Kretzmer's distilled lyrics magnificently. The mediums shine as one, thriving on a shared economy that fuels the show with inexorable momentum.

The cast is wonderful and huge; the principals outstanding with few exceptions. How nice also to encounter well-managed vocal amplification at the CPA, which is rarely in evidence at locally produced musical events at this venue. Opening night's performance included some glitches, occasional drop-outs in volume primarily, but the overall balance between natural vocal projection and amplification was discerningly mixed, emphasizing acoustical sound so that voices actually emanated from where characters stood, rather than solely out of the sound system.

As Jean Valjean, Evan hardly needs miking. His execution of the role's unwieldy vocal range--which includes standard tenor territory as well a complete song in falsetto--is coupled with enough acting prowess to convincingly maneuver his character over 20 years. Evan's role encapsulates Les Misérables' full spectrum of musical moods. His tremulous opening "Soliloquy" and the soul-searching "Who Am I?" establish emotional credibility early on in the show.

Likewise, his thunderous singing was indispensable in such ensemble numbers as "In My Life" and "One Day More." So smooth was Evan's falsetto in "Bring Him Home," perhaps the show's most lovely number, that it seemed his natural register.

Robert Longo as Javert makes a worthy adversary for Valjean. His booming bass voice is duly sinister--also his angular frame. Longo's treatment of Javert's character development over the course of the show, however, is only nominally borne out. Javert's gradual weakening of resolve--and eventual collapse--in the face of Jean Valjean's countless heroics exerts little dramatic impact. In "Stars," his introductory solo, Longo voiced Javert's isolation movingly, but his suicide ballad, "Soliloquy," was postured and less than "to die for."

Lisa Capps as Fantine--the indigent single mother who entrusts her daughter's life to Jean Valjean's care before dying in the third scene--is so good that you'll wish for a rewrite. Finely tempered theatricality and expressive courage give Fantine's one solo, "I Dreamed a Dream," extraordinary poignancy.

Cosette's portrayal--as a child by Jenell Brook Slack, then in adolescence by Gina Feliccia--was adequate to task in both cases. Slack's nasal rendition of "Castle on a Cloud" had charm if not tone, and Feliccia's singing in general was encumbered by vibrato that just wouldn't quit.

Those lovable deviates, Mr. and Mrs. Thénardier, give a joint performance of the song "Master of the House" that provides Les Misérables with its jolliest moments. J.P. Dougherty and Kelly Ebsary are despicably winning and their slapstick rapport is quick and broad as the barricades themselves.

It's rare enough that major Broadway tours stop in San Jose, and Les Misérables is one of the grandest you are likely to encounter anywhere.

Les Misérables runs Aug. 8­9 at 7:30pm and Aug. 10­11 at 2 and 7:30pm at the Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose . Tickets are $15­$49. (408/998-BASS).

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From the August 8-14, 1996 issue of Metro

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