April 4 2012 12:00 AM

Changes have been made, but 'Les Miserables' retains its musical power


The thing about great art is that there’s always something new to get out of it.

I’m not about to compare the students of the 19th century French June Rebellion depicted in Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables" with last year’s American Occupy movement protesters, but you can’t help but wonder if some of them weren’t humming “Red and Black” while huddled over Manhattan café tables.

Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical stage adaptation is deservedly one of the world’s most popular musicals, and your proof is at the Wharton Center this week. 

The show plays as a tension of opposites between the flawed altruist Jean Valjean and the letter-of-the-law enforcer Javert, with the latter always threatening to make the show his own. Andrew Valera, who embodies Javert as one charismatic mofo, finally succeeds in that attempt.  You’ll never root for the bad guy like you will for his Javert.

Similarly, Casey Erin Clark´s angelic characterization of Fantine sears into your brain, and you genuinely miss her after her too-brief appearance. 

“One More Day,” the thunderous end to Act I is just as rousing as ever—if the soaring final note doesn’t have your heart pounding, you don’t have one. During the tender “A Little Fall of Rain,” some members of the audience could be heard openly weeping. And the Thénardiers´ songs (“Master of the House,” “Beggars at the Feast”) still work as perfect breaks in the brevity, providing much-needed mirth. 

After 27 years, “Les Miserables” is sporting a new look.

Gone is the much talked about rotating stage and the transforming barricade set; in its place are some cutting-edge animation sequences inspired by sketches by Victor Hugo and gorgeous sliding set pieces that fluidly lock into place, and then nimbly spin out of the way when scenes are changing.  

Not all the revisions are for the better. It’s hard to say that a three-hour musical should slow down at all, but some of the more tender emotional scenes seem a little rushed. Some lighting equipment that borders the proscenium blocks some of the visuals to the extreme stage left and right. And newcomers should thumb through the program before the start of the show: A couple of time jumps and a character change-of-costume seem more confusing in this version.

‘Les Miserables’

Wharton Center

7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 4 and Thursday, April 5; 8 p.m. Friday, April 6; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, April 7; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday, April 8

$32-$70; $25 Michigan State University students with ID