Photo by Joan MarcusAFTER THREE HOURS OF LES MISéRABLES, you can't resist concluding, à la Marx, that French history occurs twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as musical theater. The first production I saw of Les Miz, at the Shubert in 1988, was certainly no tragedy — just another fluffy, soulless spectacle that I accepted as the latest evidence of Anglo-French perfidy. After viewing it anew at the Ahmanson Theater recently, I was struck by how much more the downtown show looked and sounded like a real musical than it had in Century City. Which is odd, of course, since both versions are bolt-for-bolt reproductions of the original American staging, with its towering sets and racks of period costumes. Perhaps when I attended the show in '88 I was expecting something transcendent, whereas by now I had wised up.

Les Misérables has undergone some changes since it first appeared at Paris' Palais des Sport in 1980. Five years later, after the Royal Shakespeare Company's John Caird and Trevor Nunn got their hands on it and sufficiently Anglicized its presentation, Les Misérables opened in London; Broadway beckoned in 1987. Despite the refinements of Caird and Nunn, who had collaborated together on Nicholas Nickleby, the musical superstructure remains the original work of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, who have sandblasted Victor Hugo's 1.3K-page novel into a surprisingly supple play.

The resulting stage translation is simple enough. In 1815, Jean Valjean (Ivan Rutherford), released from prison after 19 years, finds life on the outside an impossible proposition and winds up stealing some silver candlesticks from the trusting Bishop of Digne (Seth Bowling). Caught by the local gendarmes, Valjean seems destined to return to prison until the kindly prelate covers for him and sends Valjean out into the world with the candlesticks and a newly acquired Christian humility. Years pass, and the reformed Valjean becomes a respected bourgeois who does double duty as a town factory owner and mayor. His charity also pays for the care of Cosette (Alison Fidel), a young girl born out of wedlock to one of his mill workers. All is not well, however, for Valjean's old chain-gang guard, Javert (Stephen Bishop), now a hardhearted cop on the beat, discovers that the mayor is the same Valjean who skipped parole some years ago. This is bad news for Valjean, for before Three Strikes there was Javert, an avenger of the unforgiving state who pledges to track him down until the end of time.

Valjean flees with Cosette and settles in the Paris of Louis Philippe, whose July Monarchy is about to be challenged in the streets by a cadre of idealistic students, one of whom, Marius (Tim Howar), has fallen for the now womanly Cosette (Regan Thiel). When the barricades do go up beneath the red flag, gray-haired Jean Valjean is there with the insurgents; so is the implacable Javert, however, as a police spy in radical's clothing. Paris sizzles, the revolt fizzles, and almost everyone dies at the barricade, although Valjean busies himself by engineering the captured Javert's release and saving the wounded Marius' life before uniting him with Cosette. The old parole jumper, in fact, seems to grow saintlier with every obstacle. Javert, possibly realizing that only more good deeds can come of his pursuit of Valjean, jumps into the Seine.

TWO THINGS ARE OBVIOUS WHEN ANAlyzing Les Miz: The first is that it's nearly pointless to criticize it as a work of theater, in the same way it's pointless to critique any fait accompli, whether it is a tree or an ugly building — all one can do is point and describe. The other thing is that, on paper, at least, this show shouldn't fly. All the unsung dialogue is delivered in narcotizing recitative, and the score isn't so much forgettable as unmemorable. While no one today seriously expects music-theater lyrics to have any meaning, it is nice to leave a show humming one or two of its tunes. But Boublil and Schönberg manfully resist any temptations to yield to such audience pandering. With the exception of “Master of the House” and “Lovely Ladies,” with their impersonations of Threepenny Opera­ish ribaldry, the lyrics never come within miles of suggesting the darkness of human nature — without which, redemption is an empty buzzword. Nor for a moment does their soft pop-rock score convey the fire of the French revolutionary spirit. Where nearly any eight bars from Webber-Rice's Evita put one in touch with the tragic contradictions of South American politics, Les Misérables' halftime marching anthems have as much chance of capturing Hugo's milieu as the music from Rent.

At the Ahmanson, the lead voice belongs to Ivan Rutherford, whose timbre alternates between the role's traditional tenor requirements and a freaky Barry Gibb falsetto. (With his beard, flowing mane and open shirt, he even looks like the former Bee Gee.) A far steelier tone is sounded by Stephen Bishop's Javert, and indeed, this determined officer of the law commands our attention whenever he's onstage. His costuming (by Andreane Neofitou) is, shall we say, more authoritative than anyone else's, but more important, Javert is the only character who undergoes any change as a result of the show's three-hour arc. Let's face it, Jean Valjean remains a saint from the moment he's handed those candlesticks, but it's Javert who realizes that his absolutist interpretation of justice — and thus his raison d'être — is wrong. In other words, without Javert there would be no story.

Some excellent secondary performances provide sparks within this sugary melodrama. Aymee Garcia and J.P. Dougherty continually steal the show in robustly wicked turns as the Thénardiers, the Sweeney Todd­ish couple who start out as Cosette's hired guardians and end up lumpen rogues. Not only that, but their daughter, Eponine, as portrayed in a brief but smoldering performance by Sutton Foster, is a far more compelling figure than her white-bread counterpart, Cosette. All of Cosette's “suffering,” after all, comes and goes early in Act 1, while Eponine, who vainly pines for Marius in her raggedy clothes and street diction, evokes genuine pathos throughout. Even the show's famed silent character, production designer John Napier's hulking Parisian barricade, recalls nothing more than one of those theme bars where the junk from half a dozen attics has been attached to the walls and ceiling.

LES MISéRABLES HAS EVERYTHING we high-minded critics in the alternative press love to trash: a simplistic storyline, mushy histrionics in place of ideas, flashy stage effects and, above all, financial success — producer Cameron Mackintosh couldn't have made money faster had he Xeroxed it. Like Miss Saigon, Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, this is one of Mackintosh's platinum franchises, a traveling culture circus that comes to town with its own shock battalion of vendors, who transform theater lobbies into gift shops selling CDs, posters, T-shirts and key chains. It's probably the show's profane profitability that most irks its detractors — Les Misérables is not just a commercial spectacle, it's a creature of crass marketing, something you'd expect to have sprung from the brain stem of a Donald Trump.

There's nothing wrong, of course, with reducing a novel into a stage musical, no more than it's a crime for theater to turn a profit. It's a matter, in the end, of how seriously the adapters take their source material. Locally, for example, the Modern Artists Company's Plato's Symposium, as staged by David Schweizer, also moved Socrates into the realm of pop culture, but only so that an ancient message could be translated to us across a gulf of eons — we never felt that author or audience was being shortchanged. With Cats, Les Misérables and other cogs in the Mackintosh machine, we're constantly aware of the retailing and caramelizing of literature and history. And that alone should be enough to send us to the barricades. LES MISÉRABLES | By ALAIN BOUBLIL & CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHÖNBERG | Adapted from the novel by VICTOR HUGO | Music by SCHÖNBERG | Lyrics by HERBERT KRETZMER | At the AHMANSON THEATER, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown | Through February 12

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