Les Miserables at the Ohio Theatre

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

A few weeks ago, the Academy Awards - desperate to draw a young, hip demographic - included a skit where Anne Hathaway confronted Hugh Jackman in a spoof of a song from "Les Miserables." That Hathaway didn't sing a Lady Gaga or Katy Perry hit proves that the 25-year-old musical has staying power.

Not that the Oscars ceremony morphed into something relevant. Unlike that failed attempt at evolution, which actually lowered ratings, an updated 25th-anniversary production of "Les Miserables" has become even more powerful than the original. It keeps the play's best elements while moving them onto a modern stage.

In some senses, "Les Mis" hasn't aged at all. Its heartfelt songs about love and suffering are timeless, as is the theme of redemption.

"This show will be done for 100 years because it's so potent and so universal - the feelings, the compassion," said Andrew Varela, who plays Inspector Javert in the touring production and previously portrayed Jean Valjean on Broadway.

In the play, which boils down the plot of Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel, a poor Frenchman named Jean Valjean has completed 19 years in prison after stealing a loaf of bread. Under France's rules for ex-convicts, he is destined to be an outcast for life, so he runs away.

An encounter with a kind priest inspires him to be a better man. He assumes a new identity and becomes well-regarded in the community, later taking in Cosette, a daughter of a prostitute. But he's soon discovered by Javert and is relentlessly pursued by the inspector for many years.

"[Javert] understands that everybody wants to be the good guy, but someone has to clean up the mess," Varela said of his character's determination to catch Valjean. "He's a people janitor."

During a political uprising in Paris, Valjean and Javert come face to face in a surprising final encounter.

By casting Lawrence Clayton - who is black and has a singing style influenced by R&B - as outcast Valjean, the directors brought a new flavor to the show, Varela said.

"Knowing the plight of the black man brings a special connection or poignancy to Americans," he explained.

The casting is not the only fresh idea in the new production. Now that 60 million people around the world have seen the play, it was time for a bit of a facelift.

Gone is the revolving stage of the original. Giant projected images of Victor Hugo's paintings are the new backdrop. In certain scenes the paintings move, creating the sense that the actors are walking through the image.

"It's the next wave of technology," Varela said. "It's a game changer."

The orchestrations have also been updated to add more drama and percussion.

"There's so much power and impact, and the orchestra becomes a character in the show," Varela said.

Les Miserables

March 15-20

Ohio Theatre

55 E. State St., Downtown