Peter Lockyer wants to make clear that the 25th anniversary touring production of “Les Miserables” that comes to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall this week is not a shrunk-down version of the classic show.
It may be missing the famous turntable that was a scenic highlight of the original, but this one travels with more trucks than the original tour, and is described as faster-paced and shorter.
“It’s like seeing one of your favorite rooms from a different window,” said Lockyer, who plays the show’s hero Jean Valjean, in a telephone interview from Charleston, S.C. “Whereas the original production was romantic and expansive, this production is a little edgier and grittier. It’s the same story, the same impact, but told in a slightly different style.”
And that style apparently still packs a wallop.
“Even by intermission it was clear that the show seemed uncommonly raw, unusually emotional, strikingly intense, and the singing, well, it just seemed unusually expeditious in its journey to one’s gut,” the Chicago Tribune wrote of the tour in November.
The new production is staged by Laurence Connor and James Powell, from the original by Trevor Nunn and John Caird.
In the musical inspired by a sprawling Victor Hugo novel, Lockyer plays a man who spent years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his hungry family, and tries to live a more law-abiding life even as he is haunted and followed by a determined police inspector, who believes that once a thief, always a thief.
Lockyer knows the difference between the original and current versions of the show. He spent about six years playing the young student revolutionary Marius, who falls in love with Valjean’s ward, Cosette. And the latest Marius remembers that it was Lockyer in the role when he first saw the musical on Broadway.
For years, one of his audition songs was “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” Marius’ tribute to his fallen comrades at the barricades during a student revolution. But he could never get an audition “for the ensemble much less for Marius. The agents kept saying they’re not looking for your type, and I read into that.” He had heard more than once that “I didn’t look Asian enough” or “you look too Asian” at different auditions.
A few years ago, a casting director for the show saw Ilaw in a reading of a new musical and asked, “How come you’ve never auditioned for Les Miz? You should be in ‘Les Miz,’<TH>” the actor recalled. “My agent said they were interested.” After four rounds of callbacks over eight months, Ilaw started rehearsing last fall and joined the company on stage in December.
That was just before the Oscar-winning film was released and became an international hit, like the stage musical.
Lockyer said that it has had no real effect on the production other than to make even more people aware of the show. “Perhaps the ticket sales have bumped up a little bit, but not even that much, because we’ve been selling out everywhere we go for the past two years.”
That explains, in part, why producer Cameron Mackintosh announced two weeks ago that this production would make a stop on Broadway in 2014, the second time the show would return there after the original closed in 2003 after a 16-year run.
Lockyer said the show’s popularity is undimmed in part because, as Mackintosh often says, “it’s about the survival of the human spirit. We all want to hope and believe we can be better people and can survive challenging circumstances. You don’t have a great musical without great music and this show is certainly one of the best in the history of musicals.”
Even after more than 3,000 performances, Lockyer hasn’t tired of the music.
“It’s melodically gorgeous, makes you think and ponder life. That’s what we want our art to do,” he said. “We want our art to help us understand our life, whether it’s a painting or a book or a musical.”
When he joined this new tour last year, Lockyer said it wasn’t odd to come into the show again, this time as the leading man.
“More than anything, ‘Les Miz’ is just in my bones. It’s part of my DNA. Having done it for so long. I cherished it. And moving to Valjean didn’t feel as radically odd as one might think. I’m just that much older. I didn’t think I could do Marius again. I’m closer to Valjean than Marius.”
During all the years he played Marius, he never thought about graduating at some point to play Valjean.
“I just thought it was so far away,” he said. And no one assumed the show would run so long on Broadway. “I was in my early 20s and mid-20s. I just didn’t think about it, so when this came up, it was a great opportunity. I was just excited to go in and audition and be part of this family that I’ve known for so long and try to get a little new spin on it.”
While the stage may not spin, both Lockyer and Ilaw agree that the new designs and direction give the show an earthier feel.
“Everything is a little grittier and a little uglier,” Ilaw said. “The music is still glorious. When I saw this show right before I joined it, I thought things weren’t necessarily beautiful. People sound in pain and hungry and poor. It gives the audience members a different way of looking at the show.”
The two actors star with Andrew Varela as Javert, Genevieve Leclerc as Fantine, Lauren Wiley as Cosette, Briana Carlson-Goodman as Eponine, and Timothy Gulan and Shawn M. Hamic as the innkeepers the Thénardiers.
The cast also includes Joseph Spieldenner, who graduated from Charlotte High School and performed in shows there and at Venice Theatre before moving on to Florida State University and a New York-based career. He plays several roles, including the drunken student Grantaire.
The tour runs Tuesday through March 10 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and then moves for a week of performances at Barbara B. Mann Hall in Fort Myers.
“Les Miserables” runs March 5-10 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Tickets are $60-$90. 953-3368; vanwezel.org. Performances continue March 12-17 at Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, 13350 Edison Parkway, Fort Myers. Tickets are $55-$100. For more information: (800) 440-7469; bbmannpah.com