Les Miz Highlights Powerful Performances

When the average person thinks of Broadway musicals, they often envision the mega-musical: a feast for the senses with big, intricate sets and lavish costumes. Such shows are, above all else, spectacles. Even the most astute audiences can’t help but be floored by the sheer magnitude of the production, even if the writing is thin and the characters underdeveloped. These are the shows that can draw in non-theater lovers, though theater hipsters cringe at the mention of their name. For all their faults, these shows are beloved, and they keep coming back to the stage.

That said, there is a lot to unpack with Les Miserables (shortened to Les Miz in recent productions because apparently, adding a z where an s should be is what’s considered hip with the kids, but I digress). It’s got something for everyone — a love triangle, a revolution, moral ambiguity, Cops and Robbers: extreme edition, cute kids, a ton of dead bodies, raunchy humor and, yes, extravagant sets, costumes and effects. Based on the 19th century novel by Victor Hugo, it first hit the stage in 1985, and 30 years later, it’s still being revived and reimagined again and again. Fresh off of its latest Broadway revival, the iconic show is now kicking off of its national tour at PPAC.

Any revival of a show like Les Miz faces the challenge of balancing what people know and love with something new to keep the production from growing stale — in short, keeping the essence of the show intact. This production harkens back to more of the works of Victor Hugo — specifically, his paintings, which serve as the backdrop of several scenes. While abstract, they suit the moodiness and griminess of the story well, especially when complemented by the smoke-imbued spotlights they seem to love. A few scenes also utilize a video sequence in the background that draws audible awe from the audience as Jean Valjean  (Nick Cartelli) sludges through the sewers with a wounded Marius (Joshua Grosso) on his back. This is where updating the design of the show comes in handy; this use of technology, in addition to impressing audiences, better illustrates their journey than a stationary set.

While these visual aspects of the show continue to evolve, the story itself remains what it has always been since it was written in the 19th century: a timeless tale of redemption, love and forgiveness. Throughout the almost three-hour show, Cartelli’s Jean Valjean transforms from a bitter, cynical convict, fresh out of prison and finding life on parole harder than expected, to an older, holier man. Every step of his journey, he is chased by Javert (Josh Davis), the inspector hell-bent on seeing Valjean back behind bars. While evading Javert, he helps young mother Fantine (Melissa Mitchell) who was forced into prostitution to pay to support her young daughter, Cosette. After Fantine’s passing, he goes to the Thernadiers’ inn where Cosette is subject to the family’s cruelty to raise her in her mother’s place. Nine years later, Valjean joins a revolution in order to protect Cosette’s (Jillian Butler) beloved Marius.

Cartelli’s deterioration as Valjean ages is a bit abrupt, but his vocals are stunning. His rendition of “Bring Him Home,” the hymn-like appeal to God to spare Marius’ life, is everything the song was written to be: reverential, powerful and heartfelt. If you’ve seen the 2012 film version of Les Mis, this washes the taste of Hugh Jackman’s butchering of the song out of your mouth.

As Eponine, Phoenix Best delivers the anthem of unrequited love, “On My Own,” gorgeously, making the popular, oft-performed song her own. Knowing that this is a dream role of hers makes the moment all the more sweet to witness.

Another standout is Grosso as the lovesick Marius. In his first meeting with Cosette, “A Heart Full of Love,” he’s goofy and awkward, which helps sell their relationship from the start. His mournful lament over the loss of his friends “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is heart-wrenching, and beautifully staged utilizing memorial candles and the reappearance of the revolutionaries as the phantoms who haunt him.

As the upright inspector Javert, Davis delivers a powerful performance. His deterioration as Javert becomes more unsure and less composed in his final scene is masterfully done. Javert is a difficult character to sympathize with, but Davis almost accomplishes the impossible.

The weak points of Les Miz come from the attempt to adapt a more than 1,000-page novel for the stage. There is just too much material in the original from which to make a musical of reasonable length. As a result, some characters get shortchanged in the writing. Cosette becomes a two-dimensional and all-around forgettable character. The revolutionaries are all pretty much interchangeable — they all have names and backstories and relationships, but the audience never knows these. It becomes easy to forget that the Thernadiers are truly terrible people when they are used as comic relief. Their dirty jokes and crazy antics sweep under the rug their abuse of young Cosette.

Nonetheless, Les Miz offers its audience breathtaking moments, both in moments where the stage is filled with people and the lights and sound are at maximum and in the stripped down, quiet moments where it’s just one performer, one spotlight and the audience. There’s a lot on offer, which is perhaps why audiences keep coming back for more. Les Miz’s stay in town is regrettably short, but if you missed it, rest assured: as long as there is an audience for it, there will always be more productions.

Les Miserables runs through Sept. 30. For tickets, call the box office at 401-421-2787 or visit ppacri.org.

Leave a Reply

Prove that you are human *

Previous post:

Next post: