Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Les Misérables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel and follows the life of Jean Valjean in early 1800s France. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and then trying to escape, Valjean breaks parole to live a life free from the stigma connected to being an ex-convict. After he is shown mercy by a priest who has the power to send him back to prison, Valjean dedicates his life to God. The remainder of the complex story follows the character as he returns that mercy and kindness to others, such as Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Javert.
This is a gripping and emotional tale of redemption, and 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 Schönberg (Miss Saigon). The fact that so many characters are sufficiently developed and so many plot points covered in about three hours is no small accomplishment in itself.
Les Misérables is the finest example of the "all-sung pop opera" style that dominated the 1980s and 1990s on Broadway. The score, with music by Schõnberg and lyrics by Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer, has produced modern classics such as "Bring Him Home," "On My Own," and "I Dreamed a Dream." The soaring melodies beautifully match the characters and settings, and stir emotions within audience members. Though melodic motifs are repeated too often for some tastes, there are numerous distinct examples of beautiful music and skilled lyrics to provide sufficient variation.
The famous original staging of the show was accomplished by directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn. This touring version, from directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, recently became the mounting presented in London, and it differs greatly from the original staging but is no less impactful. It is a grittier and smaller Les Misérables. The changes are likely to be jarring at times to longtime fans of the show, but refreshing and more personal in many ways as well. Some scenes are definite improvements, while others aren't quite as effective, but the overall effect is still that of a fluid, efficient, and theatrically thrilling presentation of the material.
The original orchestrations by John Cameron have been tweaked by Chris Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, and Stephen Brooker, with some notable alterations. Though the 15-piece orchestra under the direction of conductor Brian Eads sounds great, fans will note some different (faster) tempos in some songs and even some slight melodic variations as well.
Patrick Dunn is a touching Jean Valjean and he provides lovely vocals throughout. His portrayal includes a distinct and apt change in his characterization before and after Valjean's redemption, and conveys a heartfelt emotional arc. As Javert, the policeman who pursues the convict throughout his life, CCM grad Preston Truman Boyd is appropriately authoritative and a strong singer, garnering significant applause for his booming rendition of "Stars." Mary Kate Moore shows many layers as Fantine, but is a bit pitchy vocally. Joshua Grosso is an eager Marius and a talented singer, though some of his vocal phrasing sounds odd at times. Jillian Butler is endearing as Cosette and provides welcome variety in her singing of the role. As Eponine, Phoenix Best provides crystal clear vocals and strong acting chops. Portraying the Thenardiers, Jimmy Smagula and Michelle Dowdy garner lots of laughs. The rest of the cast, including featured actors Matt Shingledecker (Enjolras), Patrick Scott McDermott (Gavroche), and Emily Jewel Hoder (Young Cosette), give worthwhile performances as well.
Most design aspects for this tour are different as well. Gone is the turntable that was closely associated with the piece. Instead, set designer Matt Kinley uses traditional set pieces mixed with projections to provide a handsome visual setting inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. The projections are effective (especially in the sewer scene) and thankfully aren't overused. However, oddly enough, the projections of the year, which used to occur at each instance that a significant lapse of time took place, are now gone, and their absence hampers the understanding of the passage of time. The stark lighting by Paule Constable is theatrical and adds to the gritty take on the material. But, other than the opening scene (which now takes place on a prison ship), the lighting doesn't help identify the singer very often, which is a detriment in some of the larger ensemble numbers, and the performers work in shadows through much of the show. The costumes are again by Andreane Neofitou (with additional help from Christine Rowland) and add greatly to the theatricality of the show.
Whether you're a longtime fan of Les Misérables or will be coming to the piece with no previous exposure to it, you are bound to be moved and entertained with this touring production. An excellent cast, a stirring tale, and praiseworthy songs make this a production not to be missed.
Les Misérables runs through February 23, 2020, at the Aronoff Center, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, call 513-621-2787 or visit cincinnati.broadway.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.lesmis.com/us-tour/.