If you've been a fan of "Les Miserables" during the last 25 years, you're sure to enjoy the reinvented production at the Paper Mill Playhouse.
The same music and story so many people grew up with and fell in love with over the last two-plus decades take center stage in the 25th anniversary production that runs through Dec. 30. From the first note, it's hard not to smile if you're fond of this show.
But, of course, you need a cast that can bring the emotional story to life, which is the case with the Paper Mill production. During interviews with the press in early November, several actors playing principle characters said they were given the freedom to reinvent their character. That freedom shows as this group of actors were able to take ownership of their characters.
It starts with Lawrence Clayton as Jean Valjean, the thief who changes his life after a bishop sets him on the right track. The conflict of his character over the course of the show, trying to do the right thing at each step, is apparent through his voice. It's best showcased in "Bring Him Home," as he begs for Marius' life to be spared. Marius has sparked a romance with Valjean's ward Cosette.
Clayton's performance at Valjean touches the audience and pulls at the heart strings, evidenced by the tears that were falling by the end of Sunday's performance.
And with every hero, there needs to be a villian. But is Inspector Javert a villain? Andrew Varela, who brings Javert to life, said in interviews he wants people to see how his character was well-intentioned, thinking he was doing the right thing chasing down Valjean. The Summit High School graduate, who has Broadway "Les Miserables" experience, shows that in both of his songs—"Stars" and "Soliloquy." He proves more to be the foil to Valjean than the bad guy.
We only see Betsy Morgan as Fantine early in the performance and again in the last scene, but she brings powerful emotion to her character as she pleads for help for her daughter, Cosette. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is a highlight.
Chasten Harmon, playing Eponine, also brings a musical highlight in her rendition of "On My Own" early in the second act.
But beyond the music and acting, there's the way directors Laurence Connor and James Powell set this new version of "Les Miserables," which is set to go on a national tour after its time at Paper Mill. From the first scene, there are small changes from the Broadway production. The opening scene, which was in a prison in the Broadway version, is now on a ship.
The settings of the production are as wonderful as the music itself. The backdrops are based on paintings by Victor Hugo, the author of the novel "Les Miserables." One of the most incredible parts of the backdrop change is during the eerie trek through the Paris sewers in act two. Plus as Javert sings "Stars," the stars behind him shine brighter. The lighting also plays a key role at important moments. The setting of candles during "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" also sets another level of emotion.
Jeremy Hays, who plays Enjolras, said in an interview in early November how he watched a lot of the Broadway version of the show as a swing. The new show, he said, has the same magic of the original production.
Indeed he is right with his assessment.