The latest tour of Les Miserables to arrive in Baltimore is comparable to its many predecessors in almost every respect - except one. This time around the show is at the newly refurbished Hippodrome instead of the Mechanic Theatre.
The difference does more than put a new picture frame on Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel. It also alters the audience's experience of the show.
In many ways, the Mechanic was an ideal venue for Les Mis. Not only was it one of the smaller theaters that the large touring show played, but with its severe concrete walls, the theater turned this tale of fugitive Jean Valjean into an almost environmental experience.
In the more spacious, grander framework of the Hippodrome, theatergoers are less likely to feel they are part of Les Miserables than to see it as a panoply or historical panorama acted out in front of them.
At the Hippodrome, Andreane Neofitou's costumes and John Napier's sets, complemented by David Hersey's chiaroscuro lighting, come across as a series of Old Master paintings. The early peasant scenes suggest the work of Pieter Bruegel; the bawdy tavern scenes, Jan Steen or portraitist Frans Hals; and the later battle and genre scenes, Jacques-Louis David and even Rembrandt.
At the same time, nearly two decades after its London debut, the spectacle of Les Mis has grown so familiar that the work of co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn has lost much of its ability to astound. For example, in "One Day More," when the student rebels march in wedge formation, waving a red flag in preparation for their 1832 insurrection, the effect almost feels cliched.
Some of the difficulty can be attributed to repeated viewings of essentially the same production that played its pre-Broadway debut at Washington's Kennedy Center in 1986. But in the opening scenes at the Hippodrome, Randal Keith's Valjean also seems too familiar with the material. There's an initial lack of freshness in his delivery.
By the second act, however, Keith fully inhabits the role and does more than ample justice to his moving solo, "Bring Him Home." On the other hand, Stephen Tewksbury, from start to finish, has no difficulty conveying the rigid, self-righteous spirit of Valjean's relentless pursuer, Inspector Javert.
Other notable performances include those of Cindy Benson, who displays rollicking comic flair as Madame Thenardier, the innkeeper's wife; Josh Young, earnest and charmingly bashful as Marius, the lover of Valjean's ward, Cosette; and Ma-Anne Dionisio, whose voice soars with heartfelt longing in "On My Own," the testament of unrequited love sung by her character, Eponine, for Marius.
Overall, Les Miserables remains a huge enough enterprise to reveal a few new discoveries on the fifth, sixth, or (oh, well, who's counting?) visit. But while the show - which closed on Broadway last year - continues to be a best seller in Baltimore and most other cities, it would certainly be intriguing to put it to the test of a new directorial interpretation.
Where: Hippodrome Theatre,12 N. Eutaw St.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 6:30 p.m. Sundays, with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Through April 25