BWW Review: LES MISÉRABLES Gives a Triumphant Rallying Cry at Bass Performance Hall
As an Italian publisher set about beginning the first print run of the international literary sensation Les Misérables, the novel's author Victor Hugo felt the need to explain his ambition in writing an almost 660,000-word tome about French society and criminal justice. "Humankind's wounds," Hugo wrote long before our current cultural moment, "do not stop at the red and blue lines drawn on maps. Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn from or a warm hearth, Les Misérables knocks at the door and says: 'open up; I am here for you.'"
And Les Miserables is here once more for Dallas-Fort Worth in a triumphant new touring production that is every bit as breathtakingly exciting and heartbreakingly relevant as when the show first premiered over thirty years ago. Audiences can see the musical for themselves at Fort Worth's Bass Performance Hall through June 30.
Even if one hasn't picked up Hugo's 1,500-page book, many are aware of the musical's now-classic plot. After being unjustly imprisoned for nineteen years, the convict Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) breaks his parole to start a new life for himself in cities across France. Along the way, Valjean is ruthlessly pursued by the rigidly dogmatic police chief, Javert (Josh Davis). And that only touches the surface of this ever-sprawling but always-captivating narrative. For those unfamiliar with the plot, the program provides a handy summary of the musical's events and character arcs, though several viewers around me seeing the show for the first time had little trouble following the story.
Not so much a reinterpretation as a reimagining, this production draws its aesthetic and atmosphere from Victor Hugo's own sketches and paintings of city life in his beloved country. And, like an impressionistic painting, this new staging makes use of small, seemingly mundane details that combine and rearrange to create awe-inspiring scenes that sear themselves onto the viewer's imagination. Though I am typically no fan of the use of projections, the images used in this production move fluidly and naturally, the technical elements allowing for swift and dramatic changes between scenes without distracting from what is taking place onstage.
And what takes place onstage is nothing short of a tour-de-force. Cartell inhabits the character of Valjean on a thrillingly visceral level, understanding that how one acts the part is just as important as how one sings it, and he does both exquisitely. He times and places his delivery of words and phrases in ways that seem natural but that no doubt require a great deal of skill, never losing his breath even as the character gasps for breath under clouds of gunfire. It would be impossible to choose even just a handful of Cartell's highlights given that his performance is constantly captivating; he hits notes as high as the towers of Notre Dame with an equal degree of grace and magnificence. Worth mentioning especially, though, is that his beautifully desperate rendition of the mournful prayer-song "Bring Him Home" earned a well-deserved riotous round of applause in the second act.
Cartell is matched in talent onstage by Davis's Javert, portraying the character not merely as a love-to-hate villain but as a tragically complex man of justice faced with the possibility that his own actions may not be so just. Davis exudes power, his authoritative posture remaining firm even as his inner fortitude begins to buckle, and his commanding baritone rings out with the force of a church organ. Like Cartell, Davis never fails to capture attention, and his stalwartly defiant performance in "Stars" as well as his silent movements following a failed revolution do much to humanize one of the musical's most misunderstood figures.
Audiences will also find themselves cheering on the musical's many, tragic featured roles as well. On opening night, Kelsey Danae gave a moving performance as Fantine, the reluctant prostitute who leaves her daughter in the care of Valjean after her death. Danae's voice hits the ear soothingly, a pleasantly jarring sensation given that the words she sings are full of utter sorrow. Similarly, Paige Smallwood astounds with her powerfully anguished voice as Eponine, and her "On My Own" firmly establishes her as one of the finest actresses to play the role in this generation. Matt Shingledecker also deserves praise for his blindingly charismatic portrayal of Enjolras, the leader of the student revolution that comprises much of the second half of the musical.
LES MIS isn't all tears and turmoil, though. In fact, the love story at the heart of the musical is what largely prevents the show from becoming an unbearable onslaught of despair. Jillian Butler plays Cosette, the adopted daughter of Valjean who grows up to fall in love with the student Marius, played on opening night by Patrick Rooney. Butler successfully prevents Cosette from becoming just another stereotypical ingenue role, displaying both power and tenderness even as she confronts her father about all the secrets he keeps from her. Furthermore, Butler and Rooney have delightfully sweet chemistry together, approaching one another with the paradoxical shyness and confidence that plagues all young lovers. Their duets, especially "A Heart Full of Love," act as relieving glimpses of sunlight as we brave the tumultuous storm of the rest of the show.
Equally relieving is the comedic relief, which in this case takes the form of Thénardier (Jimmy Smagula) and his wife, Madame Thénardier (played on opening night by Maggie Elizabeth May). The Thénardiers make their living swindling others out of their money and property, either as deceitful innkeepers or treacherous criminals of the street. Smagula and May interact with each other with the trained improvisational skill of two vaudeville comedians, coming up with delightfully ridiculous ad-libs while inventively stealing one item after another. "Master of the House" gives the audience their first real taste of riotous laughter in the show, and the song's principles keep the energy so high that many might feel compelled to sing along.
The remainder of the ensemble deserves equal credit for their performances, all of them singing with the same expertise as many of the leads and performing with the same forceful commitment. Their voices and acting choices blend together so skillfully that it feels as though crowds of citizens inhabit the stage rather than "just" thirty-five. No doubt they owe much of their success to their music director and conductor, Brian Eads. LES MIS contains arguably one of the most relentlessly challenging scores in musical theatre, yet Mr. Eads expertly manages both his cast and his wonderfully dynamic orchestra with the cool control of a ship captain in the eye of the storm.
All of these elements combine to create a production that thrills with every second even if audiences might already be extensively familiar with the musical. This was my second time in several months seeing this touring company, and I still found myself utterly awed by the performances or by picking up on details I hadn't noticed before. It is this freshness that accomplishes what Victor Hugo set out to do with his novel in the first place: to announce the arrival of a force for good in the world, a force for change. And what a force is LES MIS.