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New Hugo; Reorchestrated score, color update 'Les Miz' for 25th anniversary

When it debuted on London's West End in 1985, the English-language version of "Les Miserables," the musical adapted from Victor Hugo's sprawling novel about the struggles of 19th-century Parisians, was an instant hit with the public.

Every year thereafter, its popularity grew, with a successful runs in New York, where it became the second-longest running show in Broadway history when it closed in 2003 and various tours around the world. It's still running in London.

To celebrate the show's 25th anniversary, its producers -- armed with the knowledge that nothing sells like the travails of the downtrodden set to a soaring score -- could easily have dusted off the musical's 2006 Broadway revival, propped it up in the theaters of their choice, and continued to rake in the cash.

But when the 25th anniversary tour of "Les Miserables" rolls into Shea's Performing Arts Center on Tuesday for a sold-out six-day stay, it will be noticeably updated from the version of the show many of its fans fell in love with. The current tour, which launched in 2010, recently celebrated its 500th performance.

The show's producers -- including British mega-musical mogul Cameron Mackintosh -- have added new scene and costume designs and updated its orchestrations to have a slightly edgier, more modern feel. If the original English-language production of "Les Miz" was monochrome and spare, its anniversary version is dressed up in Technicolor and somewhat more complex.

James Powell, who co-directs the 25th anniversary tour, spoke to The News from London about the challenge of updating the material while staying true to its sprit and timeless themes.

"I think it's a pretty faultless, sturdy, epic piece of musical theater. What I didn't want to destabilize was the emotional impact the show has, and that really is due to both the music and the drama. So, that was something I and the rest of the team were very keen not to dilute or change," Powell said. "The set was, though impressive, simple in its conceit. We wanted to really add color and tell the story visually as well as emotionally and this presented us the opportunity to do that."

The producers called in designer Matt Kinley, who drew inspiration for the show's more vibrant design from Hugo's paintings, along with costume designers Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowlands. The score has been completely reorchestrated, replacing 1980s-style synth sections with a more organic sound and adding what Powell -- a veteran of the "Les Miz" cast who auditioned for the show 17 times -- called more "jagged chords."

The result has been well received, with a tour still going strong a year and a half after its launch. For Powell and the rest of the creative team responsible for the show's 25th anniversary refresh, that's the latest bit of welcome news for a franchise that only seems to grow more popular by the year.

"We thought, 'We've got to either match or try to top what's preceded us.' And that was no mean task."

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW

WHO: "Les Miserables"

WHEN: Tuesday through March 4

WHERE: Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.

TICKETS: Sold out

INFO: 847-1410 or www.sheas.org.