Review: Thunderous LES MISERABLES Tour Storms Back into Segerstrom Center

Still an impressive epic of gargantuan proportions, this over-the-top, high-quality stage musical revels in its exaggerated theatrics.

By: Sep. 22, 2023
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Review: Thunderous LES MISERABLES Tour Storms Back into Segerstrom Center
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Highly regarded as one of musical theater's most popular, beloved, and ubiquitous musicals of all time, the epic hit stage show LES MISÉRABLES---after a long 11 year absence on the road---is making its explosive return to OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts for a brief two-week engagement through October 1 in Costa Mesa. 

Though its return engagement feel like a relatively refreshed, brand new production---but still expectedly gargantuan in scope and execution---this boisterous, grandiose spectacle of overtly expressed emotions and overtly belted show tunes remains as amplified as it has always been.

Whether you're a long-time or brand new fan of the show's memorable songs or the show's arresting stagecraft, this rather impressive, high-quality sung-through musical offers both dedicated fans and casual theatergoers something to love about it. There's an implied high-brow, intellectual quality about it that somehow also positions it as populist entertainment. 

Les Miserables
Devin Archer and the Company of LES MISÉRABLES. 
Photo by MurphyMade.

Similarly admirable as that very well-received 25th Anniversary touring production that stopped at this very theater 11 years ago under the same direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, everything about this current traveling iteration of the Tony winner for Best Musical still feels new-ish… and, yes, undeniably massive---it's still a big show with big emotions, performed by a big cast with big strong voices singing about big, important themes. 

Subtlety is not the raison d'être of LES MIZ (as it is most often lovingly referred to), and, understandably, repeat audiences have come to expect the show to wallop them with all that it has. 

And boy, does it ever. 

As I took in and immersed myself in this visually-stunning, showstopper-filled production during its recent press opening night performance Wednesday night, it's hard not to miss that this LES MIZ seems to aim purposely (and successfully) to be as overwhelmingly amplified and as heightened with histrionics as possible in its presentation---from its cast's over-exaggerated acting choices and vocal delivery to the production's awe-inducing theatrical magic. 

The impressive scenic designs by Matt Kinley---directly inspired by paintings by author Victor Hugo himself---are seamlessly integrated and synced with Finn Ross' gorgeously cinematic projected backgrounds and environments and Paula Constable's moody stark lighting designs that all evoke a copacetic, harmonious marriage between modern high-tech and tried-and-true practical theatrics. Even the cheesiness of the cast's slow-stride movements while in front of an animated background that recedes behind them is forgivable in its clever earnestness.

I get it… this updated "all-you-can-eat" iteration not only has to please the purists of the original, but it might also be trying to appeal to those who were introduced to the musical solely via its 2012 big screen adaptation, which prompted the use of an almost movie-like treatment to the show (perhaps as a way to compensate for this production not using the infamous stage turntable that became synonymous with the original production).

Les Miserables
Nick Cartell and Gregory Lee Rodriguez from LES MISÉRABLES. 
Photo by MurphyMade.

Mixing legit operatic, classical, and more contemporary pop to blast out one massive wall of sound at full volume (like a musical theater tsunami from the stage), the music in the show is performed with an inescapable, shuddering power that never wains. For many, this feels like a sign that the show employs a spectacular, vocally-blessed ensemble cast (which, yes, it does), and there is no denying that this tour is chockfull of very impressive, powerful singers, many of whom belt their respective songs far past the highest of this theater's rafters.

But this extra-amplified volume exposes something that I never got from previous iterations of this show: an overt overuse of vocal vibrato, especially from the show's male ensemble, to the point that their extra-trembling delivery becomes somewhat ridiculously over-the-top (and for me to say that about this show means… it's a lot). It is by no means a deterrent to enjoying the show overall, but it was definitely noticeable enough for me to continuously whisper to my plus-one "okay, they really need to calm down with that or they might as well call this show Les Vibratos." 

Again… I get it. It's part of LES MIZ's histrionic leanings and its fan-servicing appeal to the many who have such visceral emotional reactions to the show, where everything is super-emphasized and over-enunciated to achieve full melodramatic effect. 

Based on Victor Hugo's classic 1862 novel set during the years leading up to the Parisian Uprising of 1832---which was later adapted for the stage by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and featuring iconic music from composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyricist Herbert Kretzmer with original text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and additional material by James Fenton---this brand new behemoth of a production continues its history of satisfying expectations for eye-popping visuals, bombastic musical anthems, and intensified emotional stakes. 

No one in LES MIZ is simply just mad or angry… they are furious with fiery ferocity. No one is simply just a little sad… they are inconsolably devastated and deeply heartbroken and… well, utterly miserable. I did notice that some scenes are now injecting a few small hints of slight comedy that wasn't quite there before---perhaps a small gesture of the show trying to tone down some of the intense seriousness that permeates most of it.

Though this epic saga contains various interwoven stories of love, heartache, personal strife, stark human conditions, and, yes, the inciting of a revolution, the main narrative focus of LES MIZ, of course, is the challenging journey of a man named Jean Valjean, played with measured stature and laudable musicality by Nick Cartell

Les Miserables
Haley Dortch from LES MISÉRABLES. Photo by MurphyMade.

Incarcerated for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her family, the musical begins on a ship in rough waters being rowed by a gang of hard-working inmates, with a newly-paroled Valjean going through the motions of a defeated, broken man as he re-enters society. 

Visibly desperate and hopeless, Valjean soon reverts back to stealing, this time from a church that had provided him sustenance and shelter. But rather than be turned over to the authorities by the kind bishop (Randy Jeter) who catches him in the act, he is instead shown mercy for the first time in his life, and is urged to take the valuables he has procured and run away to start a new life with a new, albeit falsified identity.

A mere eight years later, Valjean successfully reinvents himself into a wealthy business owner and even becomes the friggin' mayor of his town! 

Amongst the many employed in one of his factories is Fantine (the exquisitely-voiced Haley Dortch), a bullied young woman who is suddenly and unjustly fired by her supervisor, forcing her to go into prostitution so that she can continue sending money to a pair of devious innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Christina Rose Hall and Matt Crowle) who are "helping" to raise her secret illegitimate daughter Cosette (played by Vivian Atencio during Wednesday's performance) alongside their own young daughter Éponine (played by Cora Jane Messer during Wednesday's performance).

Soon Fantine is later arrested by a stern policeman named Javert (the excellent Steve Czarnecki during Wednesday's performance) after an argument with an abusive solicitor. 

Feeling guilty over the tragic downturn that has since happened to Fantine after her dismissal from his factory, Valjean---using his influence as Mayor---pleads directly with Javert for Fantine to be sent to a hospital rather than to jail. And as she lay dying in a hospital ward, Valjean vows to Fantine that he will personally rescue her daughter Cosette from those evil innkeepers and raise her as his own. 

For his part, Javert slowly discovers that perhaps the man identifying himself as mayor Valjean is actually the same runaway fugitive/parole-violator he has been obsessively trying to hunt down all these years!  Unfortunately, by the time Javert realizes this, Valjean has disappeared once again.

Les Miserables
Christine Heesun Hwang and Gregory Lee Rodriguez
from LES MISÉRABLES. Photo by MurphyMade.

Nine more years go by and Valjean continues to do financially well, but has become ever so much more paranoid about being found by Javert. He mostly now hides within his gated palatial estate, raising the now grown-up Cosette (Disney princess-sounding Addie Morales) whom he loves like a real daughter and thereby treats her like a precious, fragile jewel. 

Meanwhile an increasingly volatile France is on the precipice of war. At the forefront of the impending revolutionary uprising is young politically-charged student leaders Enjolras (dashing Devin Archer) and Marius (adorable Gregory Lee Rodriguez), who, with the help of their fellow revolutionaries, erect an imposing barricade in the center of the city to serve as the front of their operations against the oppressive government. Somehow mixed amongst their ranks is a young, pint-sized street urchin named Gavroche (a terrific Milo Maharlika during Wednesday's performance), who later proves that one's youth and size doesn't necessarily mean their contributions to the cause will be minor.

Somewhere along the periphery, grime-stained Éponine (the gorgeous-voiced Christine Heesun Hwang, who later provides a stunning, power-packed "On My Own") is also now all grown up, and happens to be harboring a secret crush on young Marius, but is later heartbroken upon learning that Marius has fallen in love with the more regal Cosette---the same girl her parents mistreated in her household before being rescued by Valjean from her wicked parents. 

Grand and epic in all aspects of its presentation, this new production of LES MIZ is definitely over-exaggerated and over-the-top---which, to be perfectly honest, is part of its appeal. 

In other shows, this kind of over-affected acting and singing would feel too cheesy or ridiculous; but here, this style fits the material well, trapping itself in a very special musical theater bubble that straddles the fine line of seriousness and camp that never becomes too laughable or silly (well, okay, the vibrato sort of took me close to that threshold). It also helps that the show's source material is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th Century, adding an air of great importance to its stage adaptation.

Les Miserables
Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall from LES MISÉRABLES. 
Photo by MurphyMade.
 

The technical aspects of the show coupled with the show's anthemic music make for a unique hybrid art form that takes the best of musicals with the seriousness of opera, to find a strange but enjoyable middle that many audiences have come to appreciate. Purists of the original Tony-winning musical will revel in this new touring iteration's nostalgic aspects, while newbies just getting their first taste of the show may either surrender to its over-the-top theatricality or at least enjoy mumbling snarky comments under their breath while still appreciating the artistry and talent that is blatantly on display on stage. 

And, man, the music orchestrations are lush and the voices are just lovely (yes, despite the vibrato on some of the men).

So is the show still worth checking out? The answer is a resounding "oui."

* Follow this reviewer on Twitter / Instagram / Threads: @cre8iveMLQ *

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Photos by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade courtesy of Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

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Performances of LES MISÉRABLES, presented by Cameron Mackintosh and NETworks Presentations continue at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through October 1, 2023. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org. 




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