There's something about "Les Miserables" that keeps me coming back.
It's not that "Les Miz," running through Sunday at the Hippodrome Theatre, is my favorite musical. Far from it.
It's all too easy to point out the technical flaws in Claude-Michel Schonberg's melodies (bombastic) and Herbert Kretzmer's lyrics (unsurprising). The critics have been making these arguments for the past 27 years, and for the past 27 years, audiences have been ignoring the critics.
Producer Cameron Mackintosh's much-hyped new staging incorporates brighter costumes and screen projections to simulate such effects as Paris' underground sewers. Nonetheless, the experience of seeing the show has not fundamentally changed.
The musical captivates when the individual performances are sublime, and it captivates when they are merely so-so. (The show that I saw starring Andrew Varela and John Brink falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Most performances are accomplished, but just one — Shawna Hamic as a corrupt innkeeper's wife — is spectacular.)
A film featuring an all-star cast was released in December to predictably mixed reviews, but audiences predictably loved it. The movie starring Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway is being credited with filling seats with a new generation of theatergoers eager to see the national tour of the stage version.
This is the same production that visited Baltimore as recently as 2011, though with a different cast. Nonetheless, on Tuesday night, hardly any of the Hippodrome's 2,286 seats were empty.
But perhaps it's not so difficult to comprehend why "Les Miz" is into its second quarter-century of world domination.
This is a musical that has a masterpiece as part of its DNA. The show is based on Victor Hugo's 1862 novel and it exerts a cumulative force that's difficult to resist. There are moments in every production that are deeply moving, moments of a stern and almost thrilling beauty, moments when you may find yourself thinking about an old problem in a new way.
A performance seen in an evening tends to linger in the memory the following morning. For all its undeniable entertainment value, "Les Miz" has an impact that's not easily shaken off.
Despite its dozens of characters, epic sweep and tangle of subplots, "Les Miz" is at heart a story about a struggle between two men. The police inspector Javert implacably pursues Jean Valjean, the former convict who stole a loaf of bread to feed a starving child, and then skipped parole so he could start a new life.
I'm fascinated by the way that the plot re-enacts the conflict between an absolute and unbending code of ethics and situational morality.
Though Hugo tips the scale heavily in favor of his hero, he doesn't settle for simple answers to complicated questions. If Valjean and Javert are inextricably bound, it's because they are opposite sides of the same coin. Even their names, with their duplicate "j's" and "v's," sound alike.
Given the importance of that central relationship, it's a shame that it was disrupted by circumstances during Tuesday's performance, with understudy Brink filling in for the ailing Peter Lockyer, who normally heads the cast as Valjean.
Brink sings admirably. His rendition of the notoriously difficult "Bring Him Home," with its two-octave sweep, was especially impressive. With his curly wig and beard, the actor resembles a Christ figure, reinforcing the musical's theme of salvation. But Brink is much younger than Varela, and didn't stand a chance of matching the gravitas and presence of his more experienced scene partner.
For his part, Varela's articulation was muddy, and at times it was difficult to understand his lyrics. He also had a tendency to let his admittedly splendid baritone do his acting for him — though there were tantalizing flashes during Javert's two signature numbers, "Soliloquy" and "Stars," when Varela seemed briefly to be excited, charged up and fully engaged.
Genevieve Leclerc brings welcome fire to her portrayal of Fantine and Briana Carson-Goodman imbues the lovelorn Eponine with an appealing toughness and grit. And when the student rebels, lead by Weston Wells Olson, sing "Drink With Me to Days Gone By," the moment is so poignant, it nearly makes the audience forget Jean Valjean and his troubles.
The cast standout is Hamic, whose depiction of Madame Thenardier is a comic tour de force. Hamic crafts a performance that's over the top and believable at the same time.
Madame T. doesn't sing as much or as often as the other characters. But wait until you see Hamic chop a baguette. Wait until you see the imperious little flick of her wrist as she brings the knife down each time on the cutting board. Each eloquent thwack is very nearly a solo of its own.