BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at The Orpheum

BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at The Orpheum

There is probably little to say or write about Les Miserables that has not already been said or written. Claude-Michel Schonberg's epic musical, based on Victor Hugo's equally epic 1862 novel, first captured audiences' imaginations as a concept piece in France in 1980. Since the reimagined English language version starring Colm Wilkinson and Patti LuPone premiered in London in 1985, productions, special concert events and revivals have sprung up throughout the world, including on Broadway, where the show's original run lasted over 16 years and it has twice been revived. Les Miserables has also been adapted for film, including the 2012 musical version, which starred the likes of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Eddie Redmayne, and garnered Anne Hathaway an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Indeed, after more than 30 years as part of our cultural lexicon, Les Miserables remains a musical theater juggernaut, whose enduring themes of redemption, loyalty and love, incredible score and sheer longevity imbue it with an unmatched sense of gravitas.

That prestige was evident at the Orpheum on Tuesday night, as the U.S. touring production of Les Miserables began its run in Memphis. Throughout the lobby before the show, there was an indescribable energy, as audience members sensed they were there to witness something of an "event," as opposed to a garden variety musical production. Shows like Les Miserables don't pass through the bluff city every season, and from the orchestra's booming first notes, there was an unspoken, but no less apparent willingness on the part of each audience member to savor the experience, and take in all the show's talented cast members were serving. And that ensemble, well, they delivered in droves.

For those unfamiliar with the story, Les Miserables opens in 1815 France, where Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), sentenced to 19 years of hard labor and anonymity as "Prisoner 24601" for stealing bread, is being released by police inspector Javert (Josh Davis). After Valjean skips his parole, later assuming a new identify as a local factory owner and mayor, a game of cat and mouse begins between him and Javert that spans many years. Working at Valjean's factory is Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), who toils to earn money to send to her young daughter Cosette (Vivi Howard), who is living in the countryside and being terribly mistreated by a pair of innkeepers, the Thenardiers (J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn), who use the funds on their own daughter, Eponine (Madeleine Guilbot). When Fantine takes ill, Valjean, on a quest for redemption, makes a death bed promise to ensure Cosette is cared for. True to his word, Valjean rescues Cosette and raises her as his own. After the passage of years, the action shifts to a group of student revolutionaries, including their leader Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker), and Marius (Joshua Grosso), for whom both Eponine and Cosette (Paige Smallwood and Jillian Butler respectively), now young women, both share an infatuation, though in the case of Eponine, it is unrequited. As the revolutionaries wage a seemingly hopeless fight at the barricade, Javert closes in on Valjean.

As Jean Valjean, Mr. Cartell gives a tour de force performance, driving a 15-20 minute Prologue before the remaining scenes of an otherwise lengthy Act I even press forward. There have been a number of famous interpretations of Valjean, and this review will eschew any comparisons here. However, uniquely imbued in Mr. Cartell's portrayal, even in the later scenes as Valjean grows old, is a spirit of youthful strength and energy. He strikes an imposing physical presence on stage, even as his hair grays and makeup evinces the passage of time. More importantly, he strikes the appropriate balance between the brute strength and tenderness that make his character so beloved. His tenor is pitch perfect, pure and clear, and his rendition of "Bring Him Home" is, without exaggeration, among the best I have heard.

Mr. Davis's Javert proves a worthy foil, simultaneously deplorable and sympathetic. Kudos to the makeup artists who take full advantage of Mr. Davis's facial structure (and incredible lighting design) to demonstrate the toll Javert's years long, nearly obsessive pursuit of Valjean, takes on him. Mr. Davis's face becomes a character of its own, as he controls every expressive movement with remarkable precision. His baritone provides just the right counterpoint to Mr. Cartell's tenor, ranking his "Stars" among Act I's highlights.

As Fantine, Ms. Moore's portrayal is decidedly restrained. Her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" is profoundly pretty, but sung relatively straight and without the guttural passion and vocal breaks that give some versions of the song their power and enduring bite. Nonetheless, she adequately embodies Fantine's sheer desperation and sense of hopelessness, and her memory casts a shadow long after her character's demise. (Oddly enough, there is a striking physical resemblance between Ms. Moore and Ms. Butler (who plays Cosette), which left many at intermission to believe the mother and daughter were in fact being played by the same actress.) Excellent as Eponine, Ms. Smallwood pushes a bit further, giving her character a unique combination of feistiness, style and grace. Her rendition of Eponine's signature number, "On My Own" bears a faintly pop vibe, and is among the strongest in the entire show.

Messrs. Shingledecker and Grosso strike the right notes as revolutionaries Enjolras and Marius. Leading the well-known number, "ABC Café", Mr. Shingledecker injects passion and energy into the latter stages of a lengthy Act I. Mr. Grosso's "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is sung beautifully, and is also among the best renditions you will hear.

Finally, Ms. Guinn deserves special mention as Madame Thenardier, as she hilariously steals every scene she is in, faintly reminiscent of a classic Disney villain. Teamed with Mr. Crane, she makes "Master of the House" a fun romp and a much welcome opportunity for the audience to decompress from the otherwise heavy subject matter.

The production's lighting and set design are splendid, and evoke the lyrical imagery of "On My Own" as Eponine sings: "In the rain the pavement shines like silver; all the lights are misty in the river." The combination of overhead and spotlighting give the production a mysterious sheen, and as noted above, emphasize the facial structures of the cast members to powerfully dramatic effect. And the use of digital backdrops in Act II - both in the scenes underground, and of Javert's demise - is incredibly cool, giving this story set in the 19th Century a 21st Century touch. The construction of the barricade, and battle scenes are also exceedingly well executed. For all of this, the creative team, including directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, lighting designer Paule Constable, and set and image designer Matt Kinley deserve tremendous credit.

Les Miserables is and has always been one of the greats, and the U.S. tour's cast, crew and creative team have done it justice with this wonderful production. It runs through December 2, 2018 at the Orpheum, 203 South Main Street, Memphis, Tennessee.

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From This Author Chris Miritello

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