BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at Kansas City Broadway Series
"Do you hear the people sing?" You will if you attend the 25th Anniversary edition of "Les Miserables" now on stage at the Kansas City Music Hall through Sunday, December 9. This is an absolutely credible recreation of the show that first hit London's West End theater district way back in 1985 and journeyed Across the Pond two years later. It has been running pretty much at full steam ever since.
All credit goes to the actors, the orchestra, the directors, the set designers, the lighting designer, and the original author, Victor Hugo from 1862. In this production, we learn that Hugo was also an artist and his original paintings have been transformed to projections that are many of the backdrops used in this production.
The music by Claude-Michel Schonberg is heart stopping. This musical/opera is one long, marvelous anthem. If "Les Miz" (the musical) has a weakness, it lies in the source text. The original novel is a jaw-dropping 2783 pages. The play begins in 1815 and ends somewhere around 1835. The lead character Jean Valjean has already been in the slammer for 19 years.
"Les Miserables" takes place after the French Revolution and Reign of Terror, but before the French Republic has found its footing. The monarchy literally lost its head in 1793. Valjean went to jail in 1796.
General Jean Maximillian LeMarque was a Napoleonic commander who became a member of parliament and opposed the reestablishment of the French monarchy. His death in 1832 fomented the real uprising of the students in "Les Miserables."
"Les Miserables" is a story of redemption, but the number of plots, subplots, time passing, romances, and political intrigues make it challenging to follow. The libretto authors James Fenton, Trevor Nunn, and John Caird have done an excellent job of trimming this massive tome down to two and a half hours, but this show's success rests firmly on its score. A flow chart in the program or a projection on stage to keep dates and locations straight would be helpful. There actually is some identification of time and place on the program page that lists the musical numbers, but I've never noticed it until now when I looked for it.
Extreme dramatic lighting and moving set wagons have been used to keep the show moving and give it the feel of a motion picture. These are impressive and welcome changes to the original concept. Unfortunately, they may have the unintended consequence of further muddling the passage of time.
There are no weak actors in this touring version of "Les Miz." Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean is excellent. He has one of those haunting tenors that stays with you long after the final curtain falls." His show stopper is, of course, "Bring Him Home."
Josh Davis is Inspector Javert (the French cop) who chases Valjean through the years before committing suicide in remorse by throwing himself off a Paris dam and is just as good. I have been fortunate enough to see "Les Miz" a number of times and this rendering of Javert's death scene is the most effective I've ever seen. His big number "Stars" is available in a couple of iterations on You Tube and worth hearing again.
Fantine (the mother of Cosette who becomes Valjean's foster daughter) played here by Melissa Mitchell enjoys one of the signature songs ("I Dreamed a Dream), a classic death scene, and a resurrection for the finale.
J. Anthony Crane and Allison Gunn as the Thenardiers are the always crowd-pleasing comic relief characters with their various versions of "Master of the House" throughout the show. They are also the only characters in the whole show who are uncompromisingly evil and without any redeeming qualities.
Their daughter (Eponine played by the incredibly voiced Phoneix Best) is the victim of an unrequited love with her friend Marius (Josh Grosso). Eponine gets to sing the lovely "On My Own." Marius gets the love interest - a grown-up Cosette (Jillian Butler). Josh Grasso in particular has a really nice tenor. I suspect we will hear from him again. The Cosette character in the flow of this play is more limited than you might suspect, and Jillian Butler can do more. I should like to hear her have the opportunity.
"Les Miserables" is an experience more than a play with a wonderful orchestra under the direction of Brian Eads. Tickets are available online at https://theaterleague.com/kansascity/ or by telephone at 816-421-7500. "Les Miz" will perform at the Music Hall through December 9.
Photos courtesy of Kansas City Broadway Series and the producers of "Les Miserables"