This week is the Big One. With a running length of nearly three hours, sporadic gorgeous melodies that soar into the night sky and moments of spectacle worthy of the grandest of grand operas, the universally beloved mega-musical Les Misérables, a "best parts" adaptation of Victor Hugo's massive 1862 novel, has transformed the vast Muny stage into 19th-century France, rural and urban (complete with marvelous rear-screen projections).
It's downright disturbing to think that some of the stunning collage-like sets, designed by Rob Mark Morgan, will be dismantled at week's end. (The invitingly climbable battle ramparts would be a happy addition to the City Museum.) Upon these knockout sets, veteran Les Miz director Richard Jay-Alexander is working with a giant cast to create a palette of striking stage pictures.
At 1,500 pages, Hugo's immense novel defies easy distillation. The plot line, wherein the unyielding Inspector Javert relentlessly pursues Jean Valjean, a decent man who once stole a loaf of bread, provided Hugo with a kind of laundry line that allowed the fiery author to comment on all aspects of French life. The musical form does not allow for such meandering density. Without nuance, Les Miz is reduced to a story of heroes and villains.
This epic Muny production has heroes, too, starting with sound designer Jason Krueger. The stage is awash with scores of performers, all trying to be heard over the extraordinarily lush sounds of the Muny orchestra, yet nearly every lyric is crystal-clear — a brilliant feat for which Krueger should probably be enshrined.
Moving on to the stage itself: Early in Act Two the plucky but luckless Eponine sings of the fantasies that accompany her unrequited love for Marius (the appealing Alex Prakken) in "On My Own." Lindsey Mader's wrenching solo recalls the summer of 1976 when, early in her career, a young Patti LuPone stood alone on this same stage in The Baker's Wife and thrilled Muny audiences with her incandescent interpretation of "Meadowlark." The fledgling Mader already is a prodigious talent.
A few minutes later, Jean Valjean (Hugh Panaro) sits behind the barricades during a student revolution and ever so tenderly sings the exquisite "Bring Him Home." Panaro's crystalline rendition of this musical prayer is a humbling reminder that theater, at its most exalting, is indeed a religious experience. Panaro registers again in Valjean's death scene, which (in true French tradition) is as flamboyantly maudlin as the final crescendo in Cyrano de Bergerac. When Valjean suggests that "to love another person is to see the face of God," Panaro's radiant sound instills Forest Park with grace.
If Act Two contains the evening's more memorable moments, perhaps that's because in Act Two the show's pace slows down long enough to allow the characters to breathe and the audience to feel. Act One, which spans seventeen years, is mostly exposition told through incessant rhymes that are as relentlessly driven as Inspector Javert himself. Perhaps more so, because as written here, Javert doesn't have much to do. As the obsessed prefect, Norm Lewis is an imposing presence possessed of beautiful posture and voice, but he is not menacing. The show's creators shortchanged Javert.
But to enumerate this musical's deficiencies is pointless. The verdict on Les Miz was rendered decades ago. Just as it is a wasting concern to suggest that Citizen Kane is the most overrated movie of all time, so is it equally futile to complain that despite its occasional moments of epiphany, too much of Les Miz is dreary, bloated and often confusing. (Who the hell was General Lamarque, anyway, and why should students die for him when he's already dead?) Yet even those who are not seduced by Les Miz's anthem message that tomorrow will bring better times (shades of Annie) must gratefully concede that under the watchful eye of executive producer Mike Isaacson, the sheer crisp professionalism of this stirring Muny production is yet another confirmation that tomorrow has indeed come to Forest Park.