BWW Review: LES MISERABLES is Victorious at Aronoff Center
Almost every season there is a classic, crowd-pleasing favorite where the audience sighs with relief and nostalgia at the first measure the orchestra plays. this was most definitely the case with LES MISÉRABLES, running through Feb. 23 at the Aronoff Center. The sigh, however, does not come without reason. Shows like Les Misérables feel like a warm hug or coming home for a theatre patron, but this company is breathing new life into the old classic.
If you've yet to see the staged production but have seen the movie, the musical holds the same plot. Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean has been set on parole by prison guard Javert after 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread then trying to escape. After being outcast because of the sign of his parole, Valjean finally finds company in the Bishop's home. In a moment of weakness, Valjean steals the Bishop's valuables and tries to make a break for it. After the Bishop covers for him, Valjean decides he will make a new life for himself, and reinvents himself as Monsieur Madeleine, a wealthy factory owner. Valjean makes a promise to a dying former factory worker, and throughout the musical, Valjean lives to keep the promise.
Patrick Dunn is a supernova as Jean Valjean. The role of Jean Valjean is arguably one of the most demanding roles in all of musical theatre. He is in nearly every scene, has one of the largest vocal ranges, and has an intensely rich character arc. Dunn navigates it all flawlessly. Every acting choice made pairs perfectly with the vocal dynamics, as it's all sung through. Every time he was on the stage, I couldn't help but be drawn to watch him. Dunn brought the house down (even a bit too early) with the famous act 2 ballad, "Bring Him Home." His voice seems to soar above the heavens and float on the clouds of melodic and tonal perfection. Also, a major kudos to Dunn for not breaking when half the audience decided that the song was finished right before the last word of the song, and began applauding, then giggling from embarrassment. Dunn did not flinch, plowed through and ended the song beautifully.
Jillian Butler (Cosette) played gorgeously off of Dunn as his precious daughter. Full disclosure: I have always struggled to fully understand Cosette's character and have much sympathy for her over Éponine, but Butler's portrayal of the hopeless romantic changed my mind instantly. She has this remarkable likability that you can understand why Marius is so drawn to her, and then Butler's lovely coloratura soprano voice joins Dunn's above the heavens in songs like "A Heart Full of Love" and "In My Life."
Let's be clear, while I now understand Marius's affections for Cosette, I still love my girl, Éponine. Phoenix Best is an absolute delight as the street-smart, moody and equally love-sick teen. Best's "On My Own" was one of the more vocally perfect versions of the song I've ever seen, and her dynamics held unbelievable power.
Since the plot is extremely complex with, again, one of the hardest yet most well-known scores, it's only fitting that the cast be as top-notch as possible, and the entire company exceeded expectations tenfold. You get to witness romance between the favorite love triangle of Marius (Joshua Grosso), Cosette and Éponine, then you have the comedic brilliance from the Thénardiers (Michelle Dowdy and Jimmy Smagula, respectively), and a sense of thriller/action with the chase between Javert (Preston Truman Boyd) and Jean Valjean. There is truly something there for everyone.
Don't go one day more without seeing Les Misérables at the Aronoff Center, now through Feb. 23. For tickets and more information, visit https://www.cincinnatiarts.org/events/detail/les-miserables.