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A retooled 'Les Mis' for its 25th year

This thing won't go away.

Nor does anyone want it to, apparently.

The world's most popular musical, "Les Miserables," celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. More than 50 million people have seen the show -- in Paris, where the show largely takes place; in London's West End, where its English-language version took flight; on Broadway, where it closed after 16 years only to be revived three years later; and in hometown theaters across the world. Word has it, it's touring Mars in 2014.

Producer Cameron Mackintosh, whose resume includes the industry's pioneering mega-musicals -- "Cats," "Miss Saigon" and the lone Broadway survivor, "The Phantom of the Opera" -- isn't letting this milestone go by without a bang.

The 25th anniversary tour of the show touched down in Shea's on Tuesday night for the first of eight sold-out performances. Where Mackintosh might have chosen to commemorate this jewel with a toast to its roots, perhaps by sending an original star out on the road, instead he did what any good business person does: He innovated it.

It is a sleeker, sexier, brighter, edgier and quicker (though not much shorter) "Les Mis."

Most of the improvements are visual, though I'm sure a survey of the orchestra pit would reveal thicker, newer sheet music as well.

The signature turntable, which previously rotated segments of walls, piles of chairs and other mounds of debris, is gone. In its place are independently mobile segments of wall, platforms of piles of chairs and mounds of debris that fly in, float out and disappear without warning.

If those moving parts aren't enough for your attention to trip over itself, there are the much-hyped cinematic projections that paint the back wall. The images are derivative of author Victor Hugo's drawings in his own book, and they are beautiful. What was once a show that looked sketched in charcoal is now a living, breathing postcard. We now have a better of idea of what miserable lives these Parisians led, and it is both romantic and devastating.

A major fault, however, is when it replaces, instead of supplements, our trusty theatrical devices. When it comes time for noble bread thief Jean Valjean (played by J. Mark McVey) to chase or be chased, or run and hide, or lead a brigade of student revolutionaries, action cuts to a background that swoops down the path and pans across the street. Actors walk, sulk and march in place, crafting the illusion that we are actually in a wet tunnel or wayward back alley. It's much too much post-production for what is a simple activity: walking across a stage.

These changes, valuable upgrades in most cases, are certainly a nod to the very-long-awaited, star-studded musical film adaptation, reportedly set for release this winter. It will surely do big things cinematically that the stage show cannot do.

Our cast is a tremendous constant in all this rearranging. They keep the dirt on the ground. Their voices soar when they must cry, and pierce when they must proclaim; they do everything their songs intended for them to do, and notably well. "Les Mis" can easily be confused for an opera, what with its large-busted ladies and a propensity on everyone's part to sing every single thought. It is still defiantly a pop musical.

"I Dreamed a Dream" (sung by Betsy Morgan) is a tragic siren of hope, the utmost of intimate confessions, yet it cracks glass with every key change. "On My Own" (performed by Chasten Harmon) another sad song about a sad girl, is triumphantly loud. If the show's styling is full of contradictions, it begins and ends with these numbers. Still, they are incredibly successful in what they set out to do, which is to win our hearts and make us clap.

This is a property, above all else, even if it makes us tear up and dream. Launching a show business property into the stratosphere of global recognition takes years of hard work, but preserving its legacy is easy. It doesn't matter what the walls look like. You start with a strong character, you give them a great song, and you let them sing it.

This much hasn't changed.

***

"Les Miserables"

3 1/2 stars (out of 4)

Sold-out performances through Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Call 847-1410 or visit www.sheas.org.