Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Set over dozens of years in 19th century France and featuring numerous characters, Les Misérables is epic in scale but also very personal in its scope as it follows one man's tale of struggle and redemption. Based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo, it's also a musical adaptation that gets just about everything right in the transfer from book to stage. The sung-through score, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, features several songs that became instant classics and a book by Alain Boublil and Schönberg that effectively and seamlessly incorporates dozens of scenes and characters into the story without it ever losing its focus.
Les Misérables tells the 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 very bitter and desperate man. Valjean is paroled but in a moment of desperation he robs a bishop who, surprisingly, saves him from being sent back to prison and that act of kindness gives him a second chance on life. 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. However, while Valjean leaves his past behind him to become a changed man and to help the people around him, he is hunted relentlessly by the police inspector Javert, which is the major driving element behind the plot.
The national tour is a reproduction of the recent Broadway revival which jettisoned the famous turntable which was used by the original London and Broadway productions to quickly move from scene to scene. While that set element may be missed by purists of the show, the expansive national tour set pieces designed by Matt Kinley, which include large projected images inspired by the paintings of Hugo, provide a rich and robust design with the animated projections a perfect addition that help to seamlessly move the plot along. With direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell, and one of the best lighting designs (by Paule Constable) I've ever seen in a tour, which are a perfect blend of shadows and streams of light, the entire show is grounded in a dark, emotion-infused reality.
The cast are all very good, with exceptional voices that bring the well-known score to life. Nick Cartell is one of the youngest actors I've seen play the part of Valjean, but his youthfulness provides a sense of commanding energy in the earlier scenes and his ability to effectively portray Valjean as he ages, with body language and mannerisms that evoke a much older man, provides an abundance of layers and nuance for this beloved character. His singing voice is crisp and clear and his version of the character's three dramatic solos, "Valjean's Soliloquy," "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home," are rich with emotion and depth. His performance of "Bring Him Home" is one of the best I've ever heard.
Josh Davis is equally as good as Javert, the inspector who makes it his lifelong mission to hunt Valjean down. Davis creates a strong portrayal of this man, yet in his two solo songs we see the internal struggle and conflict underneath Javert's calculating exterior. His vocals are incredibly powerful.
All of the large supporting cast do very good work. As Fantine, the woman whose child, Cosette, Valjean helps raise, Jillian Butler brings a rich emotional intensity, perfectly capturing the journey this anguished woman has been forced to take. Butler also delivers a moving version of the show's most famous song, "I Dreamed a Dream." As Marius and Cosette, the young lovers of the plot, Robert Ariza and Jillian Butler have pure, clear voices that bring a rich intensity to their songs. Emily Bautista is bright and fierce as Éponine, the poor girl in love with the richer Marius, while Matt Shingledecker, as Enjolras, skillfully evokes the strong young man who becomes the leader of Marius and his fellow student revolutionaries. J. Anthony Crane and Allison Gunn are humorous but never too broad or over the top as the comic duo the Thénardiers, who are not only Éponine's parents but were Cosette's original caretakers when she was much younger.
Les Misérables is one of the most successful stage musicals ever produced and a worldwide phenomenon. The original production is still running in London, and there have been two Broadway revivals, a fairly successful film adaptation, and numerous touring productions. You could credit the love for this show to the rich, identifiable characters, the soaring score, and the epic scope of the piece, but I think it resonates so much because, at its core, it's a story of one man who trying to make a difference and be a positive influence to others, ultimately making the world a better place and living his life to inspire others to do the same. The sense of hope and the fight for the human spirit that Valjean and some of the other characters depict make for an inspiring story and an incredibly rich and rewarding journey. If you've never seen a production of Les Misérables, you are in for a treat with the touring production. If you are already a fan, you will find much to enjoy in a return visit.
Les Misérables, through May 20th, 2018 at ASU Gammage, 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased at www.asugammage.com or by calling 480 965-3434. For more information on the tour, visit www.lesmis.com/us-tour.
Book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Jean Valjean: Nick Cartell