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Vive la revolution: After 25 years, Les Miserables still finding a way to stay fresh

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Peter Lockyer played the student revolutionary Marius when the mega-musical Les Mis©rables turned 10 on Broadway and he will be the lead, Jean Valjean, when the 25th touring production arrives in Winnipeg Tuesday.

That adds up to more than 3,000 performances of the global stage blockbuster that has become part of our cultural fabric since its London debut in 1985. It has been seen by nearly 60 million people in 42 countries in 21 languages.

Lockyer is one of the rare performers in North America who avoided typecasting and has moved up to the top of the cast list. Can we expect to see him as Valjean's police pursuer Javert for the 30th birthday of Les Mis©rables?

"Would I do Javert? I would never say never," the New York-based actor says over the phone from a tour stop in Edmonton. "Who knows? It's a great role.

"Les Miz is in my blood. It's part of my DNA. I grew up in the show."

In his career of long runs -- six years as Marius, four-and-a-half years in various roles in The Phantom of the Opera and two years as Chris in Miss Saigon -- a year-and-a-half as Valjean is considered just settling in to Victor Hugo's tale of injustice and redemption.

"It's one of the best roles in the musical canon," says Lockyer, whose father is Canadian and mother an American. He grew up in Connecticut and Toronto.

"There aren't many like it. I get to span 20 years, going from a man who feels persecuted by life to a man of grace. I feel like I get to learn a life lesson every night."

For the 25th anniversary of producer Cameron Mackintosh's money-spinning extravaganza, John Napier's iconic turntable set has been mothballed in favour of projections inspired by Hugo's own paintings of Paris.

"They use projections of those paintings to create images for our show," he says. "We have a new sound system and orchestrations. It has a more up-to-date feel. Other than that, the themes and the music are exactly the same."

Lockyer, who looks older than he is but will not divulge his age, likens the upgrades to looking at a favourite piece of art from a different angle.

"The original production was romantic and lush and had an expansive feel," he says. "This production feels a little quicker, edgier and more in your face."

Lockyer was an uninspired high school student when he was a part of a class trip to New York City to see Les Mis©rables. Of course, he was wowed, and he bought a poster he put up on his bedroom wall. Little did he know how it would impact his career.

"I was touched right away by the artistic and visceral nature of the music," he says. "It's emotional music, and that touches everyone regardless of whether you're going to dive into the philosophy of the show or not. You feel as soon as you hear that boom, boom opening chord."

Actually, his first starring role was in Miss Saigon, another Claude-Michel Schnberg/Alain Boublil musical that will always be special to him because he married his co-star, Melanie. The same creative team then cast him as an understudy for Marius and eventually promoted him to the role full-time.

"I've known Cameron since I was a teenager," he says. "I affectionately call him Uncle Cammy, though he doesn't know that. I'm incredibly blessed and grateful for the opportunities he has given me. He has single-handedly given me a career."

Most stage actors in Les Mis©rables looked at last year's hit movie version with some longing. Lockyer claims he is not possessive of the Valjean role and does not harbour any ill will against Hugh Jackman, the star of the big-screen adaptation. He says each Valjean brings something special to the role. His favourite is Colm Wilkinson, whom he performed with on stage and counts as a personal hero.

"You can't ultimately hide who you are on stage," he says. "Your honesty and sincerity comes through and I hope I am able to do that. I hope I bring my heart to it and people see that it's personal for me."

The anniversary runs are career highlights, but Lockyer had another one when Les Mis©rables premiered in China in 2002. A Chinese poet was hired to write the translation, which was projected over the stage.

"When the red flag was waving I thought about Tiananmen Square and the student uprising," he says. "There were certain historical connections, but it received thunderous applause like everywhere else."

Perhaps the biggest star he ever shared the stage with was the legendary Barbra Streisand during a summer tour in 2007. No one would forget singing Evergreen with Streisand.

It was a gig, actually the job of a lifetime, he says, which came his way again because of his connections to Les Mis©rables, a show that keeps on giving.

"The show will be done over and over again long after you and I are gone. It will be re-investigated because the themes will never get old. Having a chance to come back to the show is testament to the strength of the piece. Most shows close so you don't get a chance to return to the show as an older character."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 20, 2013 G1

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