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Victor Hugo described his novel "Les Miserables" as a journey from "bestiality to duty" and from "nothingness to God." Viewers of the Arkansas Repertory Theatre's musical version probably won't experience such extremes. But they will come away thoroughly entertained by a rousing and well-executed production.
Some basic exposition, for those who don't know or perhaps have forgotten: Jean Valjean has just been released from prison after a 19-year sentence. Recidivism sets in. Our hero is bound for the slammer again and would make it there if not for a priest who rescues him from official trouble. Inspired to clean up his act, Valjean does so with remarkable success, soon becoming the owner of a profitable factory. Yet he cannot shake his pursuer Javert, a very determined inspector with a very long memory who can't seem to forgive Valjean for stealing a loaf of bread decades after the fact. Valjean himself has a guilt complex, made worse after he discovers that one of his employees, Fantine, has been fired by his foreman and forced to work as a prostitute. To atone, Valjean pledges to raise the dying Fantine's daughter, Cosette. Politics, revolution and love follow. Important characters die. Some suspension of disbelief may be required.
Obviously, "Les Mis" is not about the plot. It's all about the production, and The Rep delivers the goods. The songs, of course, are front and center. Whether you're a follower of musical theater or not, you have probably heard these tunes before and will come away humming after hearing them afresh. The cast sings with passion and verve. For vocal pyrotechnics, see Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" (performed by Danielle Erin Rhodes, made up to look like Anne Hathaway's blonde doppelganger). On the lighthearted side, the standout is the ribald "Master of the House," joyfully rendered by Michael Sample (as the depraved innkeeper Thenardier) and Terey Summers (as his equally depraved wife).
Just as impressive as the songs are the set and lighting design. "Les Mis" is clearly a high-maintenance production, and the Rep has done an excellent job staging it. In the first half, the primary setpiece is an industrial-looking apparatus consisting of clean lines, curves, and plenty of stairs for the actors to bound up and down. In the second half, the set is dominated by a barricade, upon which the actors mimic battle. Smoke pours through the floors to provide additional emphasis. When the battle is over and the barricade strewn with bodies, the entire set rotates as spotlights pick out the dead revolutionaries. This is perhaps the most impressive technical feat in a production that has plenty of them — be it the projection of an orange and purple sunset or use of lighting to create the sensation of one character's long fall from a bridge.
The Rep staged "Les Mis" in the autumn of 2008, and you might reasonably ask whether you need a return viewing just five years later. If you have even an iota of interest in musical theater, the answer is yes. The cast once again features Douglas Webster as Valjean and Christopher Carl as Javert, and these two are so good that you will want to applaud them again. To see a musical of this scale in a theater the size of the Rep? That's a pretty rare thing. When it's done with this sort of care and attention, there's no reason to miss it.