At the End of the Play 

Pioneer Theatre Company delivers all the glorious melodrama of Les Misérables.

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Years ago, the parody troupe Forbidden Broadway mocked the epic running time of Les Misérables with the following lyric: “At the end of the play, you’re another year older.” It was a clever shot, and it captured a lot of what annoyed detractors of the Andrew Lloyd Webber school of megamusicals in the mid-’80s. They were grandiose, bombastic affairs with none of the playful tunefulness of Broadway’s Golden Age of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe, went the old-school lament. Why all the melodrama?

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Here’s the short response: Melodrama works. And, when paired with the kind of melodies that stay in your head for years, it can be astonishingly cathartic. Pioneer Theatre Company'much to its fiscal delight, I’m sure'has discovered that nearly 20 years after Les Misérables’ Broadway debut, people still buy the kind of grand emotion it sells.

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It helps to start with a story like Victor Hugo’s novel, and its decades-spanning clash between parole-jumping ex-convict Jean Valjean (William Solo) and relentless Inspector Javert (Merwin Foard) in 19th-century France. You got your love in the young romance between Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette (Trista Moldovan) and Marius (Gregg Goodbrod), and you got your war as Marius and other idealistic students like Enjolras (Michael Halling) take to the streets against injustice. Oh, and there’s dying. There’s lots and lots of dying.

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Charles Morey'PTC’s artistic director and the director of this production'knows well enough to stay out of the show’s way. Many key staging elements are lifted directly from the original Trevor Nunn version: the massive turntable at the center of the stage, a gallery of fallen men appearing behind Marius during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” the sewer lighting scheme for “Dog Eats Dog.” Yet he also contributes his own lively spark to the one truly comic number “Master of the House” (with Max Robinson gleefully handling the corrupt innkeeper Thénardier) and a subdued, seated performance by Eponine (Kirsten Wyatt) for “On My Own.” If you’ve seen a previous stage incarnation of Les Mis, you’ll get a sturdy interpretation, but not a lot that’s unfamiliar.

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You’ll also get a whole mess of terrific vocalists. William Solo has been playing Valjean on and off for two decades, and he clearly grasps the soul of the character. His high notes seemed a bit ragged during the first act of one opening weekend performance, but he recovered for a beautiful, soaring “Bring Him Home.” Foard delivers a terrific, booming Javert, and Kelly McCormick as the doomed Fantine delivers some of the richest low notes I’ve ever heard from an alto/mezzo.

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It helps singers, though, to be working with such gorgeous melodies. Most beloved musicals make their mark with a few showstoppers, with the rest of the material pleasantly occupying time. That indeed may be why some detractors find Les Misérables so exhausting'the songs are socking you in the gut pretty much nonstop'but Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score keeps finding remarkable, heartbreaking themes to revisit through a three-hour, through-sung running time. I don’t care how many tragic souls are kicking the bucket'if the accompanying songs don’t deliver the goods, you’re not going to have a theater full of people sniffling like they just sat through a Brian’s Song/Love Story/Terms of Endearment marathon.

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Or maybe'just maybe'Les Misérables affects some people so profoundly because it’s one of the most deeply spiritual pieces of pop culture to be created in our lifetime. It’s a redemption narrative that concludes with the ultimate affirmation: a blissful afterlife for those who have suffered, perhaps unjustly, through a life of pain and woe. Call it a deus ex machina cheat; call it soap-opera stagecraft; call it a poor substitute for My Fair Lady. For some of us, at the end of the play, we’re not just three hours older. We’re a few hankies damper.

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LES MISÉRABLES
nPioneer Theatre Company
n300 S. 1400 East
nThrough June 30
n581-6961

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