Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, and set in 19th century France, Les Misérables tells the epic story of Jean Valjean who was jailed for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew. When his original five year sentence becomes almost twenty after he tries to escape, he becomes a bitter and desperate man. He is paroled but in a moment of desperation robs a bishop, who in turn saves him; that act of kindness gives him a second chance. How that event turns him into a positive person, along with his redemption and how that changes him, is the force behind the emotional journey of the story. Valjean leaves his past behind to become a changed man and help others around him. The fact that he did run away and is being hunted relentlessly by the police inspector Javert, is the major driving element behind the plot.
This is a co-production with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, as was the 2009 production, and several of the cast members in the current production also appeared in '09. The cast that the Phoenix Theatre has assembled is phenomenal, with superb voices all around. Douglas Webster returns as Valjean, and is giving a stellar performance. He is one of the best Valjean's I've seen (and I saw about ten on Broadway, including Colm Wilkinson who originated the part and was nominated for a Tony for his performance). Webster provides an intense emotional connection to his songs, giving each lyric an added depth and meaning, with a great deal of thought. His three dramatic solos, "Valjean's Soliloquy," "Who Am I?" and especially the emotional "Bring Him Home," are vivid and profound. It is a performance you won't soon forget.
James Zannelli is Javert, the inspector who makes it his lifelong mission to hunt Valjean down. Like Webster, Zannelli's vocals soar and his delivery of the lyrics seems somewhat internal, easily showing the unbalanced man underneath Javert's calculating exterior. As Fantine, the woman whose child, Cosette, Valjean helps raise, Elizabeth Brownlee delivers a knock out version of "I Dreamed a Dream," arguably the best known song from the show. But she also brings an emotional heft to her touching performance of "Come To Me" which perfectly captures the anguish of her character and the journey that Fantine has been forced to take. It is an extremely memorable and heartwrenching moment.
All of the supporting cast fair very well, including Christopher Behmke as Marius, the student who falls in love with the grown up Cosette. Behmke has an assured delivery in both his acting and singing that connects very clearly with the material. Jenny Hintze as Eponine, the poor girl in love with the richer Marius, and Caleb Reese as Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries, bring a rich connection to their parts. Reese easily gets across the strong leader who has a clear understanding of the struggles that he and his fellow students are up against, and Hintze is especially touching as the girl in love with someone who doesn't love her back, and who knows it.
Karenssa LeGear is Cosette, Fantine's daughter whom Valjean adopts and Marius loves. Her voice is more operatic, so while at first it sounds a little different from the rest of the Broadway style voices in the show, it actually brings a rich clarity to the songs that I never really noticed before. As the comic duo the Thénardiers, Michael Sample and Terey Summers play the couple who are not only Eponine's parents but Cosette's original caretakers when she was much younger. They factor into many of the plot points and while both are clearly up to the challenge of the material, they do tend to play the roles a bit too broad and slightly over the top when compared to the more serious nature of the other characters in the show.
Jenny Hintze, Terey Summers and Douglas Webster return to their roles from the previous 2009 Phoenix production and Douglas Webster, Karenssa LeGear, Christopher Behmke, Caleb Reese, Michael Sample, and Terey Summers all played their roles in the recent Arkansas Repertory Theatre production.
Director Robert Hupp, who also directed the 2009 production, has done an impeccable job. He instills a deep emotional sense in the entire production while also managing to have each of his actors make each of their roles a distinct character. This includes his direction of the hard-working ensemble members, some of whom play what seems like a dozen or more parts, yet still make them individual characters. Robert Kolby Harper's choreography grows seamlessly out of Hupp's direction.
Production elements are top notch, with the majority of the creative group repeating their efforts from the 2009 production. Mike Nichols provides a somewhat simple set design, but one with a raised walkway with several levels toward the back of the stage that creatively provides additional areas to stage the action. It is a dark design, yet an effective one that doesn't accidentally draw attention away from the story of the show. Costume and make-up designer Rafael Castanera provides a non-stop parade of effective and superb costumes, with Robert Pickens' wig designs being simply amazing. The costumes and wigs for the prostitutes in the "Lovely Ladies" sequence are some of the best I've ever seen.
Lighting designer Mike Eddy, with only one exception, paints each scene with lovely hues and shadows that quickly set the location, and in this musical there are a lot of them. Dave Temby's sound design provides some of the cleanest and clearest sound you'll ever hear, making each lyric and line of dialogue amazingly understandable. Alan Ruch's musical direction is perfect and the twelve-piece orchestra manages to sound rich and large.
My only quibbles with this production are the lighting in one of Javert's main act two scenes where he is on a bridge. The ending of the scene is so darkly lit that it isn't easy for anyone who has never seen the show before to know exactly what is happening. Also, the slight over the top playing of the parts of the Thénardiers is at odds with the emotional nature of the rest of the show. But those are two very small elements that detract only slightly from the amazing amount of emotion and depth that Hupp, his cast and creative team have brought to this story.
If you've never seen a production of Les Misérables, or are a fan and want to pay a return visit, the intimate and stunning Phoenix Theatre production is highly recommended.
Les Misérables runs through May 25th, 2014, at the Phoenix Theatre at 100 E. McDowell Road in Phoenix. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com/ or by calling (602) 254-2151.
Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Cast: (in alphabetical order)