Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Also see Rick's recent review of Grand Horizons
Les Misérables is a musical adaptation of the classic Victor Hugo novel of the and follows the life of Jean Valjean in early 1800s France. After serving nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread (and for multiple escape attempts), Valjean breaks parole to live a life free from the stigma connected to being an ex-convict. After he's 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 responds to that grace through acts of sacrifice and kindness to others, such as Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Javert.
It is an engaging and emotional tale of redemption, 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 Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schðnberg. It is no small accomplishment that so many characters are sufficiently developed and so many plot points are covered in just three hours. The messages in the show are as necessary and timely as ever.
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 Claude-Michel Schðnberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil and the late Herbert Kretzmer (from Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's original French lyrics), has produced classics such as "Bring Him Home", "Own My Own", and "I Dreamed a Dream." The soaring melodies beautifully match the characters and story, and yield the intended emotions from audience members. Though a few melodic motifs are repeated too often for some tastes, there are numerous distinct examples of beautiful music and skilled (and subtly insightful) lyrics to provide sufficient variation.
The original staging of the show was accomplished by directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn. The current version from directors Laurence Connor and James Powell has been the one presented on tour for quite some time now, and differs greatly from that original staging. This is a grittier and smaller Les Misérables. The blocking remains 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. The 15-piece orchestra under the direction of conductor Brian Eads sounds great.
As Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell is passionate and tender, 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, Preston Truman Boyd is appropriately authoritative and a strong singer, garnering significant applause for his booming rendition of "Stars." Haley Dortch offers impressive vocals as Fantine, and garners the necessary sympathy from the audience. Gregory Lee Rodriguez is an eager Marius and a talented singer. He adds a few welcome variations in his portrayal, including a funny moment during "A Heart Full of Love." Addie Morales is endearing as Cosette and provides crystal clear singing. As Eponine, Christine Heesun Hwang supplies rich vocals and strong acting chops. Portraying the Thénardiers, Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall garner lots of laughs. The rest of the cast give worthwhile performances as well.
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 aren't overused. However, oddly enough, the projections of the years, which were used in the original staging at each instance where a significant lapse of time took place, are gone, and their absence hampers the understanding of that 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 by Andreane Neofitou (with additional help from Christine Rowland and Paul Wills) and add greatly to the theatricality of the show.
Modern theatergoers might speak despairingly of the megamusicals that dominated West End and Broadway several decades ago, but Les Misérables demonstrates that, when crafted with quality, mounted with care, and performed by talented actors, as they are for this tour, such a show can still be extremely pertinent, impactful and entertaining.
Les Misérables runs through January 29, 2023, at the Schuster Center, 1 W. 2nd St, Dayton OH. For tickets and information, call 937-821-5811 or visit www.daytonlive.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.lesmis.com/us-tour/.