Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Les Miserables, one of the most successful and popular musicals of all-time, will soon return to Broadway for a six month limited engagement, just three years after it ended its original sixteen year run. Before the show returns to New York, however, Les Miserables will conclude its final (at least in this version) national tour. As currently displayed at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati, this enormous musical is still an engaging tale that elicits deep emotions from audiences. With the show's eye-popping theatrics intact, along with a solid cast superbly singing this brilliant score, this tour is one that's sure to please both existing fans and newcomers to the piece.
Les Miserables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name and follows the life of Jean Valjean in early 1800s France. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing some bread, Valjean breaks parole to live a life free of the stigma connected to that of an ex-convict. After he is shown mercy by a priest who has the power to send him back to prison, Valjean gives his life to God. The remainder of the complex story follows the character as he shows mercy and kindness in return to others, such as Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Javert.
This musical is a gripping and emotional tale of redemption and is epic storytelling at its best. Love stories, social and historical commentary, and a tale of Christian morality are only a few of the elements contained in Hugo's book that are effectively transferred to the stage by creators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. The fact that so many characters are sufficiently developed is no small accomplishment in itself. The original version ran nearly three hours and fifteen minutes. However, all U.S. productions were trimmed a number of years ago to three hours flat to save on overtime costs. Though the excised portions continue to be missed by devotees of the show, the cuts in no way hurt the production or storytelling.
Les Miserables is perhaps the best example of the "all-sung pop opera" style that dominated the 1980s and 1990s on Broadway. The score, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, has produced modern classics such as "Bring Him Home," "Own My Own," and "I Dreamed a Dream." The soaring melodies beautifully match the characters and settings, and stir emotions within audience members. Though some melodies are repeated too often for some tastes, there are numerous distinct examples of wonderful music and skilled lyrics to provide sufficient variation. Superb orchestrations by John Cameron add to the intensity of the songs as well.
The casting of Les Miserables is essential to its overall effectiveness, and this tour boasts an all-around talented group of performers. Randal Keith, who starred in the 2002 tour stop in Cincinnati, again throws himself into the large role of Jean Valjean completely. He displays an impressive vocal range, with some sweetly rich lower tones as well as the beautiful high notes for "Bring Him Home." Keith embodies the character with passion and shows the emotional arc necessary for the role. As Javert, the policeman who pursues the convict throughout his life, Robert Hunt is appropriately authoritative and a strong singer. Joan Almedilla likewise has a fine singing voice, and is a sympathetic Fantine, CCM graduate Daniel Bogart (Marius) and understudy Ali Ewoldt (Cosette) sing well and are effective as the young lovers, while Melissa Lyons provides a clear and spirited singing voice as Eponine. Portraying the Thenardiers, Jennifer Butt (who originated the role on Broadway) and Norman Large get all of the expected laughs from these comical roles. The rest of the cast, including featured actors Victor Wallace (Enjolras), Austyn Myers (Gavroche), and Meg Guzulescu (Young Cosette) give strong performances as well. Dale Rieling leads a first-rate orchestra.
The task of bringing the many aspects of this production together was accomplished by Directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn. Telling this complex tale through song in just three hours requires fluid transitions, efficiency of storytelling, and the unique use of many theatrical devices. Caird and Nunn succeeded on every account.
The scenic design by John Napier for Les Miserables revolutionized the craft within mainstream musical theater. The turntable and massive barricade are just two of the pieces that pushed forward the scope of possibilities for sets in musicals. The expert lighting by David Hersey (showcased in "Dog Eats Dog") and professionally rendered costumes by Andreane Neofitou also add greatly to the theatricality of the show.
There is little doubt that Les Miserables has helped jump start a passion for musicals for many now devoted theatergoers. It is wonderful to have one last go around with this original staging, especially when a cast as assembled for this tour gets to perform the material. "Everybody raise a glass" to this timeless show. The national tour of Les Miserables continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through April 30, 2006, and tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.-- Scott Cain