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Review: LES MISERABLES National Tour at Key Bank State

Review: LES MISERABLES National Tour at Key Bank State

LES MIZ! still Les Okay, in its tour kick-off at the Key Bank State Theatre

When LES MISERABLE last came to CLE in November of 2018, in part I wrote:

From the very first time I saw "Les Miserables," shortly after its opening in London, to the New York production, and through the various touring shows, I have been a fan of the show. Not just a fan, a fanatic fan!

Interestingly, when "Les Miz" first opened in London in 1985 the production was generally met with tepid reviews. This was a musical about greed, child abuse, revolution and cruelty. It contained thwarted idealism, frustration and the seeming defeat of good by evil.

This is a musical with the word "miserable" in the title, has physical beatings and numerous onstage deaths, and lacks a typical happy ending. Is this the stuff musicals are made of? Not usually. But, there is no reason that serious subjects cannot be treated in the musical form. Les Miz proves that contention, as does "Next to Normal" and "Dear Evan Hanson," and proves it well.

There is also no reason that strong emotions about death cannot be visualized as "empty chairs at empty tables," or hope cannot be expressed as, "there is life about to start, when tomorrow comes," or, that infatuation cannot be explained as "a heart full of love," or the future can't be prophesized as, "I dreamed that love would never die," and a powerful story can't be summarized with the musical's ending lyric, "To love another person is to see the face of God."

Yes, these are all lyrics conceived by Herbert Kretzmer and set to the emotionally charged music of Claude-Michel Schönberg. These are the thoughts of a great musical.

Those not aware of the tale of musical theatre, may be surprised that all of the dialogue is sung, This format is the way of British musicals, based on the strong history of operas in that country.

"LES MISÉRABLES" is an epic 1862 French tale by Victor Hugo, considered as one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. Though long and complex, the basic story line centers on a period in the early nineteenth century, which culminated in the unsuccessful June Rebellion. This is not the larger French Revolution of 1788 that overthrew the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons and the system of aristocratic privileges, as many assume when the word revolution is used in a French story.

The plot revolves around Jean Valjean, who was arrested when he stole a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew.

Imprisonment, frustration and moral awareness are pivotal ideas of the story. It is played out in front of the history of France's politics and what is meant by that era's concept of justice. It is fiction broadly entwined within factual and historical events.

In 1987 the musical debuted on Broadway, after having played in London. After 6,680 performances spanning sixteen years, it closed in the Big White Way on May 18, 2003, making it one of the longest running Broadway shows. Revivals, tours, and a movie followed that run.

This CLE production is where the current tour starts. It is probably why it is so fresh and the cast is energized.

The present three-week stay at the State Theatre mirrors the 2018 production, which eliminated the original production's two turntables, reframed the music, reinterpreted some of the songs, added electronic visuals, such as our experiencing Jean Valjean crawling through the sewers as he saves Marius and Javert falling off a bridge into the raging river below.

There is less vividness. The battle scene, minus much of the extreme pile of household goods isn't as dramatic, the marching to the barricades isn't as vivid. The lighting is darker, much as the paintings of the period which tended to be painted with less vivid oil colors. This darkness invades the entire production.

Some things are the same. I still find the reference to "this one's a Jew and that one's gay," to be unnecessary and offensive. I never have been a lover of "Master of the House" and "Beggars at Feast," which I know fulfills the musical theater formula of being "noisy numbers," inserted mid-first and second acts to excite the audience and keep their attention.

The changes, in the scheme of things, don't change the overall power and effect of the show. No one is going to argue with the conceivers and stagers of a show which has been seen by over 70 million people.

Both the solos and choral work is outstanding. Thankfully the cast interpreted the meaning of the lyrics rather than just singing words. This was obvious, for example, in "One Day More," the sure-thing show stopper, which was mesmerizing.

Nick Cartell, who played the role of Jean Valjean in the last tour, is back again. He still portrays the role with a full musical voice and compassion. His youthful presence has matured, giving more texture to the role. His "Who Am I" and "Bring Him Home" were compelling.

Halley Dortch (Fantine), making her touring debut, grabbed the emotions with the plaintive "I Dreamed a Dream." Christine Heesun Hwang was captivating as Eponine and received an extended ovation for her well-nuanced "On My Own." Gregory Lee Rodriguez gives an appealing earnest quality to Marius. His "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" was one of the show's emotional highlights.

Harrison Fox was adorable and captivating as the spunky Gavrache. His middle finger salute to Javert after the over-zealous policeman is exposed as a traitor to the student rebels, brought cheers and laughter from the audience.

On the other-hand, Preston Truman Boyd, who displays a strong singing voice, was not evil and overpowering enough as Javert. We need to really hate him for his obsession in making life a living hell for Jean Valjean. We need to cheer when his guilt gets the best of him and motivates his jumping to his death.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: LES MIZ! It is still captivating and is a major piece of the musical theater tapestry which gets an excellent staging at the start of its newest national tour. If you haven't seen it before or need a refresher, get to Playhouse before "One Day More," and get "A Heart Full of Love."

For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to LES MIZ runs through October 30, 2022.

From This Author - Roy Berko

Roy Berko, a life-long Clevelander, holds degrees, through the doctorate from Kent State, University of Michigan and The Pennsylvania State University. Roy was an actor for many years, appearing in... (read more about this author)

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