BWW Review: Latest Stunning Revival of LES MISERABLES Thrills Nashville Audiences in Return to TPAC
As difficult as it is to fathom, some 27 years ago my first review of Les Miserables - the internationally renowned musical based upon the iconic 1862 Victor Hugo novel about a reformed bread thief who is pursued over the decades by a relentless lawman in post-Revolutionary France - was published, yet one thought remains consistent and steadfast. If faced with someone who claims to dislike musical theater, take them to see Les Mis (as the theatrical juggernaut is known throughout the world thanks to countless revivals, regional production, televised spectacles and one Oscar-winning film) for its epic storytelling, emotionally driven character studies and a lush and memorable score that is sure to win over the most hardened opponents of the art form.
My contention that Les Miserables will make a musical theater fan of even the most outspoken of its critics remains unchanged. Some 32 years after my first introduction to the show - with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (the original French version's libretto is by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel) and additional material by James Fenton, adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird - my opinion remains unchanged. And no matter how many times you may see the show (granted, I may have seen it 24601 times myself), the emotional impact of the story of the fugitive Jean Valjean and his dogged pursuer Inspector Javert remains just as potent as it did the very first time.
Now, with a sparkling, somehow more contemporary, revival touring the United States (the national company is now ensconced at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center for an eight-performance run in Andrew Jackson Hall that continues through Sunday, November 19) that features elements from the production's latest Tony Award-nominated Broadway run, new audiences find themselves enraptured by the truly involving story that transports them to 19th century France, when idealistic young men rail against the inequities of an economy and a society of oligarchs whose disdain for the common man results in poverty and a pervasive sense of ennui that could only be upended by revolutionary thought and action, however ill-conceived their battles might be.
And while Hugo's novel Les Miserables was an international sensation when it was published in the mid-19th century (it was a particular favorite of soldiers fighting the American Civil War, in fact), the musical's acclaim is even more of a global phenomenon and the songs that convey the emotions of the people who populate the piece are now standards of the musical theater repertoire.
Despite the many times I've seen the musical - whether in London, on Broadway, on tour or in numerous regional productions that followed the release of rights to the masses - I found myself instantly taken away to an earlier place and time...not, at first, to the period and setting of the musical, but rather to when I first heard the score on vinyl, courtesy of the 1985 cast album from the British production (which remains the second longest-running musical in history, having been performed continuously since then). In fact, when I heard a particular note, a phrase from Fantine's first introduction, I found myself remembering the first time I heard it and my subsequent fascination with the epic work. Perhaps nothing can stir the soul quite so effectively as music and, certainly, no art form can render such a feeling of transformation than can theater. Thus, Les Miserables is an exemplar of the power of art to transport audiences to another time and place - and, perhaps most staggeringly, challenge one's thoughts and resolve.
Nothing else, no other musical theater offering, can pack the emotional wallop of Les Miserables and the show's ability to tell Hugo's tale is astonishing - even after dozens of times sitting in a darkened auditorium letting the music overtake your very heart and soul as it is being performed. The company's most recent opening night in Nashville seemed as important as that first one I attended in 1989: the audience response to every moment, every song, every character seemed as vital and vigorous as the initial time audiences in Music City were introduced to the production at TPAC. If anything, the response has only grown, the audience's devotion to the piece deepening through the years to an almost cult-like adoration. In 2017, audible responses are louder, applause more deafening, rapt attention rendering the more than 2,000 people in the audience quieter than proverbial church mice (so ardently engaged in what is happening onstage, you might easily hear the heartbeat of the person seated to your left or right).
Les Miserables is just as effective now, in the 21st century (what with the world in the state that it is today) as it was in the latter half of the 20th century when we first encountered the vision of the creative team bringing the show to life. And no matter how many shows we see, forget the numerous cast albums we listen to, is there a second act closer more inspiring, more affecting than "One Day More" or a finale more stirring than "Will You Join In Our Crusade"? Certainly, nothing readily comes to mind.
There have been some changes made in the intervening decades since the show premiered in London (and before that in Paris): the turntable - such a revolutionary piece of theatrical wizardry when the show debuted that it remains a touchstone for stage design since then - is gone, now replaced with a staging that gives the production a new and updated visual appeal, and the direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell (with musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garrett) has somewhat streamlined the storytelling approach to the material, moving the show's already cinematic pace to a quicker level to engage contemporary audiences whose attention has become accustomed to a brisker form of storytelling.
Somewhat surprisingly, if only because it seems unnecessary, some moments have been lightened with a fillip of comedy to counter the story's darker elements and to give audience members an opportunity to catch their breath perhaps or to allow themselves to smile after so much drama. These slight changes do not detract from the impact of the script or take away from the operatic overtones of the completely sung-through show (although, truth be told, some of the comedic touches are spoken rather than sung), but devotees of Les Miserables might be initially taken aback by them if they are married to the "classic" ways of past productions.
In place of the famed rotating stage, this version of Les Miserables is more traditionally staged for a proscenium stage, with projections by Fifty-Nine Productions (whose visual elements provided An American in Paris, performed on the same stage a fortnight ago, showed us Paris in a different century) evocations of art by Victor Hugo himself providing a visual guide to the city and its environs which range from dark and dismal slums to charming and recherche pieds-a-terre with a requisite trip through the labyrinthine tunnels of the Paris sewer system. Costumes, designed by Adreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland are exquisitely crafted and Matt Kinley's showstopping set and image design (based upon those images by Victor Hugo) provide a perfect backdrop for the play's action.
But if any aesthetic element of the production design can truly be the star of a production, it would have to be the moody and atmospheric lighting design by Paule Constable which instantly recreates the world of Hugo's France with such alarming skill. Constable's lighting is breathtakingly, eye-poppingly gorgeous and helps to focus the attention of audiences with ease and creating a sense of wonder as the story unfolds before you.
With such an iconic and beloved script and score, it is essential of course that the cast feature actors who possess every skill in the theatrical playbook and who are able to deliver those skills effortless grace and supreme confidence. In that respect, this revival of Les Miserables rises to the challenge, bringing a new cast to perform the work in front of a fan-base expecting perfection, but willing to accede to certain changes in the process.
As the heroic Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell embodies the character he plays with a refreshing interpretation that seems unfettered by unfair expectations that he hew too closely to preconceived notions. Rather, Cartell's Jean Valjean somehow seems more vital and vigorous - and, clearly, more youthful - than one might suppose him to be, but he manages to win the audience over with his on-target performance. His opening scene soliloquy is effective, leading him to a stirring rendition of Act Two's "Bring Him Home," which is beautifully expressed and enormously effective. And in the startlingly dramatic scene in which Jean Valjean tells Cosette the story of their shared lives, which leads to his ultimate death during which he is brought home to heaven and salvation by Fantine and Eponine, one cannot help but be completely overwhelmed, tears are likely to be shed during this particularly moving scene.
Josh Davis' Javert is beautifully conceived and stunningly acted. Davis' command of the stage and his ability to assume the character is astonishing and his performance clearly ranks among the very best of all the Javerts who've trod the stage before him. Davis' rendition of "Stars" is electrifying and his Act Two soliloquy is stirringly rendered. His onstage chemistry with Cartell is palpable (even if their fight choreography lands less successfully than you'd hope for, which makes it stand out more abruptly in the overall stellar production) and every scene into which Davis strides fairly crackles with dramatic intensity, propelling the plot ever forward.
Melissa Mitchell's Fantine is beautifully portrayed, allowing the talented actress to show us her character's dramatic arc and somehow, almost imperceptibly, displaying the changes in her personality through a remarkably nuanced performance. Her performance of "I Dreamed A Dream" is heartrendingly sung, a powerful reminder of that song's meaning.
As Eponine, Phoenix Best is spunky and spirited, resulting in a multi-dimensional performance that is at once entertaining and heartbreaking - her duet with Joshua Grosso's Marius to "A Little Fall of Rain" is emotionally draining, yet somehow remarkable uplifting, and "On My Own" is quite beautiful. Grosso skillfully portrays the diffident Marius with a sense of duty and abiding friendship and he makes the ideal suitor for Jillian Butler's multi-layered Cosette. Grosso's "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is dramatically charged and infinitely appealing, certain to elicit an emotional response with its homage to fallen friends and the dashed hopes and dreams of youth. His trio with Butler and Best - "A Heart Full of Love" - is stunning. Butler's performance as Cosette, Jean Valjean's beloved ward and the orphaned daughter of the noble Fantine, is rather understated, but she manages to wring every emotion from her character in the latter stages of Act Two in which Cosette emerges from a protected girlhood to an adult life filled with revelations and truths.
As the dashing and charismatic leader of the band of students fighting against the injustices of the oligarchy, Matt Shingledecker is impressive and engaging, Tall, blond and handsome, Shingledecker looks for all the world as if he has stepped off the cover of a romance novel, but the gifted actor/singer infuses his character with an authenticity of heroic proportions.
Cast as the manipulative, larcenous Thenardiers, Allison Guinn and J. Anthony Crane dominate every scene in which they are featured, giving raucous performances in the process and creating memorable moments throughout the years-long story. "Master of the House" is a rollicking musical highlight of Act One and their appearance at the wedding of Cosette and Marius very nearly bring down the house in the show's second stanza.
Musical director and conductor Brian Eads leads the orchestra, who provide stirring musical accompaniment to the time-honored, much beloved work, performing with passion and expertise, ensuring that this Les Miserables will be accessible to all audiences, old and new.
Les Miserables. A musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Original orchestrations by John Cameron. New orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Booker. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt. Musical direction by Brian Eads. National Touring Company at Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall, Nashville. Through November 19. For details, go to www.TPAC.org. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (with one 15-minute intermission).