NORTH CHARLESTON — After two decades serving a sentence on a chain gang, it’s not the laborious conditions of his past life that causes Jean Valjean, the protagonist in “Les Miserables,” to wail in agony.
It’s the slip of paper he must carry. It’s a mark, a scarlet letter of condemnation. By the time he sings a soliloquy, falling to his knees at center stage, his pain has become your pain. In other words, you’re hooked.
The Broadway in Columbia production of “Les Miserables” is the musical to bring the non-musical fan to see. The two-act stage adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, which opens Tuesday at the Koger Center, runs through March 24.
A film version of “Les Miserables” opened on Christmas Day. Anne Hathaway won best supporting actress at this year’s Academy Awards for her performance as Fantine, a devoted mother who sells her hair and becomes a prostitute to support her daughter. The film also stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe.
I will step out on a very sturdy limb and say that Andrew Varela who plays Javert, the police officer pursuing Valjean, has a more authoritative singing voice than Crowe. And by the time Peter Lockyer, as Valjean, promises a dying Fantine (“Fantine’s Death”) that he will raise her daughter, Cosette, you will realize that there is no need to make comparisons to the movie. It’s better just to enjoy what’s in front of you.
Last month, I went to the second of an eight-performance run at the North Charleston Coliseum and Performing Arts Center. As someone who generally avoids musicals, I can’t wait to see it again, returning to the story of Valjean, the ex-con who rehabilitates his life and becomes a businessman and politician in Montreuil-sur-Mer, a town in northern France.
When Valjean, who has adopted an alias, is exposed by Javert, he agrees to parent Cosette before becoming a fugitive once again. Hugo’s story is set in 1823 and reaches its boiling point in the 1832 uprising on the Paris streets known as the June Rebellion, a historical student-led revolt.
After 25 years on Broadway, “Les Mis” was revamped for this silver anniversary show. An updated set features original drawings and paintings by Hugo, and the set uses projections to enhance the musical’s movement.
“It’s very much like visiting an old friend who has lost a lot of weight and had a face lift,” Seth Wenig, an executive producer, eloquently told The State last summer.
The voices are magnificent at points. Fantine’s (Genevieve Leclerc) “I Dreamed a Dream,” Eponine’s (Briana Carlson-Goodman) “On My Own” and Valjean’s “Bring Him Home” are savory, but that’s to be expected. “Master of the House,” featuring the fiendishly wonderful Thenardier (Timothy Gulan) and Madame Thenardier (Shawna M. Hamic) is rousing, but what else will you get from a bunch of actors playing drunkards?
It’s the deeper cuts, if you will, like “In My Life” that make the show remarkable. A quartet of voices — Cosette (Lauren Wiley), Marius (Devin Ilaw), Valjean and Eponine — ascend independently before reaching a soaring unification that will excite.
Before the show, I went on a backstage tour. It wasn’t long after the curtain went up that I realized exactly what Wenig was referring to. In this production, the stage itself becomes an unlikely star.
The set pieces that enhance the drama move with balletic precision. It’s pretty to watch.
Heather Chockley is the show’s stage manager, and she entertained guests while final preparations for the night’s performance were being made. As we passed through the “quick change area” behind the stage, the wardrobe department was stacking outfits on chairs. Apparently, they aren’t for sitting. The show had to make two separate change areas, adapting to the lack of space behind the stage.
“Normally the men and women change next to each other,” Chockley said. “It’s not a big deal. Everybody’s wearing bloomers.”
“Watch your back,” a stage crewmember said as he rolled part for the first act’s set past.
“Les Mis” travels with 15 crewmembers, but the production hires 75 local stagehands in each city it visits. Chockley’s husband, John Ward, is the crew’s head carpenter.
“We’re not always on the same show, but this time we are,” said Chockley, who rides the bike she travels with to venues. “It’s probably why I’ve stuck it out for three years.”
The stage floor, referred to as an automation deck, is painted to invoke cobblestone. There are floor tracks to ease set changes, moving things on and off stage. There are speakers and fog hoses in the deck. What looks like giant window shutters are sliders that form backdrops. Each weighs 1,000 pounds and rotates.
Even though it’s the same stage, the scenes all look vastly different: the factory where workers are exploited; the slums where dwellers hang out of windows and convene on the street; the tavern where money is exchanged and stolen; the barricade where the students shield themselves as they fire rifles; and the tunnels Valjean carries an injured Marius through as he seeks safety.
At 6:45 p.m., Chockley oversaw a fight call on the stage.
“Before each show, we do six different fights because they’re so dangerous or they have so many moving parts that we need to review them prior to it happening in the show,” she said.
There are more than 30 instances of physical confrontation in the show. Some are two-person fights and some, like the one in the factory, involve a handful of combatants. Less than an hour before the show began, the actors were joking in jeans and T-shirts.
“You joining the show?” Varela said after being wrestled to his knees by Lockyer.
Chockley watches the show on a screen with a setup that’s not unlike that of a vintage arcade gaming station. She has Post-it notes stuck around her station. At 7 p.m., she reached for her walkie-talkie to say, “House is open, house is open.”
A touring version of “Les Mis” was staged at the Koger Center in 2004.
“It’s fast paced and consistent. But the machine-like-efficiency doesn’t leave much to chance or imagination,” a review in The State said. “So ‘Les Miserables’ is more like a recording than a live show. The 40-member cast is overflowing with talent, but not a lot of personality comes through.”
By the time Valjean finishes his soliloquy, you’ll see there more to this version.
Reach Taylor at (803) 771-8362.