In exploring big themes of crime and justice, love and forgiveness, life and death, “Les Misérables” is huge. Its music is epic, its scale is enormous, its popularity seemingly never-ending.
But Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel finds success in the small places, in moments between father and daughter, and between lovers and the lonely. And most certainly between the hunter and the hunted.
The latest touring production, based on the 2014 Broadway revival, updates the staging but keeps the show’s magnificent music and story intact. In town this week as part of STCU’s Best of Broadway series, “Les Misérables” features a strong cast, continuing the show’s tradition of quality singing.
Nick Cartell stars as Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for stealing bread to feed his starving family. Released after 19 years, he finds society an unwelcoming place. But an act of kindness from a bishop sets him on a righteous path, and he becomes determined to help people.
Among the people he helps is the dying Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), a single mother who has entrusted care of her daughter Cosette to the odious and conniving innkeeper Thénardier (Jimmy Smagula) and his wife (Allison Guinn). The Thenardiers treat Cosette as a servant and put their own daughter, Éponine (Annabel Cole), on a pedestal. Valjean takes in little Cosette (Mackenzie Mercer) – after paying off the Thénardiers for their “trouble” – and raises the girl as his daughter.
They move to Paris, where a group of students headed by Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker) and Marius (Joshua Grosso) are wrapped up in the anti-monarchy rebellion of 1832. Aided by a young boy, Gavroche (an adorable Jasper Davenport), they build barricades and attempt to fight the French government.
All this time, Valjean is dogged by his past, figuratively and literally in the form of Javert (Josh Davis), a former prison official who has been hunting Valjean since he broke parole years earlier.
Both roles are among the most demanding in musical theater, and both actors bring exquisite singing and acting to bear. As Valjean, we watch Cartell as he transforms from an animalistic creature to an upstanding businessman, mayor, father and fighter. Tasked with singing iconic numbers such as “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home,” Cartell’s voice shines. As Javert, Davis’ deep, rich tone carries a hint of menace and obsession. They are both great performances.
Speaking of iconic songs, Fantine’s time onstage is relatively short. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t leave a mark. “I Dreamed a Dream” is a showstopper, and Moore certainly stops the show. She starts small and sweet and builds until her voice is large and beautifully commanding.
Enjolras leads a rousing “The People’s Song” as fighters gather for the upcoming battle. Shingledecker is great in the role. He brings an infectious passion to bear and a beautiful voice, too. (Longtime attendees of the Best of Broadway series might remember him as Fiyero in the national tour of “Wicked” that played here in 2014.)
As the adult Epinone, Paige Smallwood is heartbreaking as the woman who knows that Marius will never be hers. Her performance of “Own My Own” was gorgeous. In another great supporting role, Andrew Maughan’s turn as the Bishop of Digne elicited the first loud burst of applause Tuesday night as audience members soaked in the beauty of his held note in the prologue.
In a show with plenty of death and gloom, there are bright spots of humor. The Thénardiers are written as comic relief despite them being really terrible people. Their “Master of the House” number is a rollicking good time of bawdiness and petty theft. It’s clear that Smagula and Guinn relish these roles, and their performances are delightful.
The young love that blossoms between Cosette and Marius also sparks bits of humor. In “A Heart Full of Love,” they play the moment with a light touch with the giddiness of first love. It’s a sweet moment.
Much has been written about the new staging. Gone is the stage turntable. Instead, the designers have cleverly used projection to enhance the story, most effectively in Act II, as Valjean carries a wounded Marius away from the barricades to safety through the sewer tunnels beneath Paris. The scene where Javert meets his fate also is technically impressive. The sets themselves, from the barricade that stretches nearly the width of the stage to buildings that rise three stories, all serve to help tell the story.
That said, the show is dark. And I don’t mean dark in tone. It’s actually dark – much of the stage is dimly lit as spotlights are cast on the featured singer. It’s an interesting aesthetic choice, and it’s certainly atmospheric, but ultimately it’s frustrating not to be able to see what’s happening up onstage.
It’s not a deal-breaker, however. “Les Misérables” continues to thrill audiences because on the first, second or 10th viewing, the story continues to ring true.
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