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Rethinking 'Les Miz'

A celebrated producer is allowing the Walnut Street and a few other theaters to produce the classic musical — only if they restage it.

Company of "Les Misérables" at the Walnut Street Theatre. "The thing I wanted to do was to rediscover the heart of 'Les Miz,' director Mark Clements said. He worked with a cast of 36, including many local actors.
Company of "Les Misérables" at the Walnut Street Theatre. "The thing I wanted to do was to rediscover the heart of 'Les Miz,' director Mark Clements said. He worked with a cast of 36, including many local actors.Read moreMARK GARVIN

Let's do something completely different, said the celebrated British producer Cameron Mackintosh - in fact, let's

make sure

we do something different.

So in 2006, he chose a handful of American theaters, including Philadelphia's Walnut Street, to produce their own versions of his Les Misérables on the condition that they completely restage the wildly popular but increasingly weary musical.

Other than school drama groups that used a cut-down version, no one has been permitted to mess with the look and feel of Les Miz - until now. Overnight, an iconic piece of theater is open to reinterpretation for the first time since its 1985 debut by the Royal Shakespeare Company in London.

The Walnut's version opens tonight in its own large-scale production (could anyone even think of putting on a small-scale adaptation of Victor Hugo's sprawling 1862 novel?), but no full-stage turntable rotates as sung-through scenes plumb love and duty, right and wrong, justice and retribution. No shaft of light encompasses poor little Cosette - the indentured waif whose image is recognizable worldwide in the show's logo - as she comes center-stage to sing about heavenly castles where children may not cry.

Director Mark Clements says the point of the Walnut's production, which will run through much of the summer, is to make the story stand out.

"The thing I wanted to do was to rediscover the heart of Les Miz. It felt to me like at this point, people were going to the show and sitting there, singing along with songs. But what do we find behind the songs? Now, the focus of the actors isn't tied to specific ways to move, or specific intonations. They can discover Les Miz for themselves."

So will the audience, Clements is hoping.

Les Miz is the sixth show Clements has directed for the Walnut, where he says he gets a special feeling because of the theater's 199-year history. Earlier this season, he staged the musical Man of La Mancha; last season, he did the drama Of Mice and Men (which won three Barrymores, including one for him). Les Miz, he says, is his toughest assignment - a total rethinking in 17 days of rehearsal that included four days of technical work with sets, lighting and orchestra and nine preview performances that ended last night.

Clements worked with a cast of 36, including many local actors who appear frequently at the Walnut. Hugh Panaro, an East Oak Lane native whose career has taken him onto Broadway as The Phantom of the Opera, plays the lead, Jean Valjean, condemned for stealing a loaf of bread and chased through life by his nemesis, Javert (another Broadway actor, Paul Schoeffler, in his third Walnut role this season).

This Les Miz brings Panaro home in two ways - literally, to Philadelphia, and also back to the show: He played Marius, the student who falls in love with Cosette, in the first national tour two decades ago.

That was the Les Miz production set designer Todd Edward Ivins initially saw. "It just blew me away," he said one recent morning, standing on a silent Walnut stage.

Long rows of his scenery sat in downtime - an imposing bridge that runs across the stage, the massive barricade where the students fight the French establishment, an expansive facade that looks like masonry from the audience. Ivins was about to oversee scenery touch-ups. "The decision to cut the turntable was the thing that forced us to start thinking out of the box," he said, noting that the Walnut's show, just under three hours, has 45 scene plans - "this flies out, that moves on - we tried to make it as seamless as possible, without making people wait in the dark. We try to focus on the narrative and less on the spectacle of the scenery."

Except for the barricade. Until now, in the original staging by Trevor Nunn and set design by John Napier, the barricade floated onto the set from many points, in pieces that all came together. At the Walnut, the barricade comes in one massive piece from the rear, as if it were a marching column of soldiers, emanating spectacular pinpoints of illumination from Jeff Nellis' lighting design.

"I wanted the barricade to be the money shot," Clements says. "But the real challenge here, with a complete rethinking, is not to let the production run away at the expense of the story. We steered clear of things that would become too technically tricky, and that we wouldn't have the time to execute to the high standard we expect."

That bridge, for instance. It plays a key role in a late scene - in the original staging, done with fairly simple effects. The question: Should you create a stage-length bridge over an entire body of water an actor could float on, using blowing silk and a motorized harness for the effect? Or should you do just some of that, employing ominous lighting? Clements, Ivins and Nellis scrapped the water and the harness, and went with the plan that was less time-consuming in both construction and storytelling.

Les Miz fans will see other changes that reinterpret action. A scene with a man stuck under a cart, which Clements always disliked for its stage hubbub, now plays almost as a quick film cut; a signature scene with Cosette's feverish mother now eerily includes Cosette, in the background, chasing butterflies.

Clements says the orchestrations originally "were structured around turntable moves. Some probably were put in because some actor was climbing down a barricade. So we've edited them down."

"What we're going for is telling this story in the most expedient way," says the director, a Brit who works often in the United States. He recently was granted permanent-resident status, is starting a film production company, and says he may buy a home in Philadelphia so he can work here and in New York.

For now, his head is back in the 19th century, reimagining how events were playing out in France, then putting them on this old Philadelphia stage - where, even back then, other people were making their own theater.

"I've told the cast, 'This is the Walnut, the stage where so many people have done so many things. . . . It's a great stage.' Of course, I don't have to tell them that. They already know it."