The opening night audience gave a clear show of its love for the 25th anniversary tour of “Les Misérables.”
At a theater notorious for patrons rushing for the exits before the performers even leave the stage, Tuesday’s audience stayed and cheered as the cast waved farewell and disappeared behind the curtain.
It was well-earned praise for this wonderfully revised and performed production, which is darker, grittier and often more emotional than some past tours. The famous turntable is gone (and missed on occasion), but in its place are new, towering sets highlighted by animated projections of paintings by Victor Hugo, whose novel inspired this long-running Claude-Michel Schönberg/Alain Boublil musical.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh does not skimp on the production values or the casting, which is often commanding and emotional throughout the performance.
This new version is directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell with occasional nods to the original by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. You still get the waving red flag during the first-act closing marching steps of “One Day More,” but you also see sewer walls moving as Jean Valjean carries an injured Marius to safety. And buildings move as a student protest passes by.
The tempo of this all-sung show is occasionally too fast to fully grasp every word and nuance, but a strong-voiced cast brings out the emotions. This is a harsh story about impoverished people trying to survive at a time when the poor were always suspect by authorities. The focus, of course, is on Jean Valjean, who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread, and despite trying to lead a noble life, he is haunted by the unrelenting Inspector Javert, who believes no man can really be redeemed.
As Valjean, Peter Lockyer brings a soaring voice that suits his anguish as a prisoner and the righteous path he follows as a business owner and surrogate father to Cosette, who blossoms under his care after her mother’s death.
He is well-matched by Andrew Varela who is menacing as Javert and sings with the kind of robust voice that commands attention (and makes you forget the croaking of Russell Crowe in the film.)
Genevieve LeClerc is moving as Fantine, who descends into prostitution after she loses her factory job, and her singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” hits all the right buttons. Devin Ilaw is sweet and youthful as Marius, the young man who instantly falls for Cosette, though you don’t feel a lot of chemistry between him and Lauren Wiley. You can see how he matures a bit as Marius deals with the deaths of his fellow students on the barricades. Briana Carlson-Goodman as Éponine, the bad girl who pines for Marius, sings “On My Own” with a lot of vibrant emotion.
Local audiences will take notice of Joseph Spieldenner, a Charlotte High School graduate, who impresses with a powerful voice and emotional performance as the drunken student Grantaire, who watches over the adorable Julian Silva as the street-smart urchin Gavroche. Jason Forbach also sings with power as student leader Enjolras.
Foregoing the traditional clownish makeup and costuming for the con-artist innkeepers the Thénardiers, Timothy Gulan and Shawn M. Hamic are both comical and menacing in “Master of the House.”
Lawrence Goldberg leads a large orchestra, the kind we rarely hear in Sarasota touring shows, providing big, rousing and touching musical backdrops to every moment in a show that still has the power to bring a tear to the eye and a lump in the throat.
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Reviewed March 5, Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, 777 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Continues through March 10. 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