BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at Rochester Broadway Theatre League

BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at Rochester Broadway Theatre League

Les Miserables has been an audience favorite for nearly 40 years for all the reasons you would imagine: its memorable, emotionally impactful characters; the songs that stick in your head; the epic battle sequences; and its timeless themes of forgiveness, morality, and love. The touring production currently playing at Rochester's Auditorium Theatre checks all of these boxes, providing a unique and emotional theatrical experience for audiences of all ages (as evidenced by the many school groups in attendance on opening night).

Les Miserables the musical (commonly referred to by fans as "Les Mis") is, of course, based on Victor Hugo's classic 1862 novel of the same name. Set in early 19th-century France, it tells the story of Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), a French peasant, and his desire for redemption after serving nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread. Valjean decides to break his parole and start his life anew after a bishop (Andrew Maughan) inspires him by a tremendous act of mercy, but he is relentlessly tracked down throughout the years by a police inspector named Javert (Josh Davis). Along the way Valjean is swept into a revolutionary period in France, while a concurrent storyline focuses on a romance between Marius (Joshua Grosso), one of these young revolutionaries, and Cosette (Jillian Butler), Valjean's adopted daughter.

Les Mis is a massive undertaking, even for professional actors and Broadway-caliber theatre companies. Apart from the obvious hurdles of period costuming, a huge cast, and having to literally create authentic staged battle sequences, it's a three hour show with almost nonstop singing; I think the innkeeper (J. Anthony Crane) and his wife (Allison Guinn) are the only characters with unsung dialogue, and even theirs is fleeting. All of these elements combine to create a show that can feel frantic and sweaty, for which this production was occasionally guilty, particularly in Act I.

These chaotic moments are quickly forgotten during the show's more deliberate, emotional musical numbers, all of which were superb and heart-wrenching. Standouts include Javert's contemplative solo "Stars", Eponine (Paige Smallwood)'s "On My Own", Marius' "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" (which was staged beautifully, including a moment where the spirits of his fallen countrymen joined him on Stage Holding candles), and, most especially, Valjean's "Bring Him Home", which for me has always been Les Mis' most important musical number, encapsulating the story's central themes of love and sacrifice.

The lighter beats of this production were equally enjoyable to the weightier ones. The Innkeeper and his wife provided gritty rough-around-the-edges comic relief during "Master of the House" that acted as a nice counterbalance to the more somber and operatic main characters, who were just a little too polished (both in singing and appearance) to be fully authentic. No one was that clean-cut during the French Revolution.

The production value of this touring Les Mis wants for nothing, with some of the most impressive set pieces and creative scene transitions I've seen. The barricade is towering and realistic, and pay particular attention to the scene when (spoiler alert!) Javert throws himself from the bridge, taking his own life. Rather than the way it's usually depicted, showing him fall backwards and unseen, this production makes the ambitious choice of shifting the POV and having the audience stare at him from above while he's falling downward into the abyss. Huge kudos to Set and Image Designer Matt Kinley for this creative choice.

Like Victor Hugo's classic work of literature, the musical adaptation of Les Miserables will stand the test of time because its central themes are universally important. Fantine (Mary Kate Moore)'s love for her daughter, the right/wrong/good/bad tug-of-war between Javert and Jean Valjean, and the consequences of oppressive government are not concepts trapped in the 1830's; they resonate with audiences across time and geography. This production of Les Mis delivers on all of these themes, and is a spectacular achievement.

Les Miserables is playing at Rochester's Auditorium Theatre until November 24th. For tickets and more information, click here.

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From This Author Colin Fleming-Stumpf

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