How many times have you seen "Les Misérables"? More than once? Not at all? What about five times, or 12? Or, I don't know, 27.
It’s not too absurd a thought. “Les Mis” is the show that never dies. “One day more!” it pleads to us, over and over again, the French revolutionaries waving their inordinately large red flag in case we didn’t hear. It’s been a lot of days more and, at this point, it simply won’t die.
For the woman who sobbed discreetly (though not dispassionately) next to me at Tuesday's opening night performance of the musical’s special engagement at Shea’s, in the final minutes of freedom-fighter Jean Valjean’s hard-defended life – I bet this wasn't her first (or last) time at the rodeo.
I bring up frequency because, at this point, I’m not sure what point there is in returning. Loving a piece of work so much that you want to go back and back, that makes sense to me. But being satisfied by it is another.
I’ve seen high school Mariuses sing their love to grown Cosette with sweet abandon. I’ve seen college Javerts plunge to their own demise while lamenting the woes of being a villain. Here at Shea’s, with many of you, I’ve seen these renegade students get in formation for justice and lose their bloody battle in balletic grace. I even endured the movie; can’t get that one day back, can I?
The insanity, from where I sit, is in how the "Les Mis" brand machine greets our weeping desire to return to these crime scenes. Granted, for the majority of the show’s Broadway, West End and multiple international touring productions, it kept to Trevor Nunn’s original staging and John Napier's signature turntable set.
Retooled worldwide about 15 years ago, the staging now boasts a more cinematic impulse, to robotic effect. The 38-member ensemble moves around with necessary precision but lack of individual agency. Street urchins banter about in the background and narrowly step into place for their line or solo. Makes Epcot's expensive cosplay look avant-garde.
Mary Kate Moore’s Fantine, who spends most of her time on stage dying, sings so alertly as if trying to hit a bull's-eye. Her deathbed scene is as turned in and private (in this giant house) as was Anne Hathaway’s face-planted camera acting. Sing out, Fantine!
New digital projections add a lush, atmospheric pulse to these Rembrantesque tableaus; ironically, this cinematic element is the least distracting. When they morph into functional special effects in the second act, mimicking a realistic plunge through Paris sewers, my imagination takes a nap. It’s gorgeously assembled, of course, but strictly unnecessary in theatrical terms.
The whole thing tries so hard to arrive at my senses that I barely have to make an effort. I don’t appreciate that. Not at this point in the game, after all my three-hour investments of time, emotional baggage in tow. Make me work for it. After all these years, that would be magical.
This isn’t about talent; here is an excellent cast intent on making this work. Jasper Davenport's moment-making quips as little Gavroche are especially a breath of fresh air. As a whole effort, though, this new staging feels more like a human gift shop than a human experience. It works like it’s built to, with foolproof nostalgia and factorylike precision: This is where we stand, this is how we laugh, this is when we emote.
Do you hear the people sing? Yes. Loud and clear. But even as I privately sing along (maybe my neighbor noticed?), I don’t know what they’re saying.
3 stars (out of four)
Runs through Dec. 15 at Shea's Buffalo Theatre (646 Main St.). Tickets begin at $37 and are available at Sheas.org.