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BWW Reviews: LES MISERABLES at Nashville's Tennessee Performing Arts Center

As powerfully moving as it has ever been, Les Miserables - the epic musicalization of Victor Hugo's classic novel by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil - returns to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center for an eight-performance stand this week, in a visually commanding , artfully reimagined and dynamic production celebrating the show's 25th anniversary on American stages.

Beautifully sung by an exceptional cast (many of whom were either very young children or not even born when the show premiered on Broadway in 1986), acted with conviction, and sumptuously designed by some of the theater's leading artisans,Les Miserables retains its sheer power to transport and transform its audiences, largely thanks to the memorable score by Schonberg and Boublil (with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and additional material by James Fenton and featuring the classic orchestrations augemented by new ones by Chris Jahnke) and the direction of Laurence Connor and James Powell, who have crafted a reinterpretation of the beloved story that is at once soaring and overwhelming, yet somehow intimate and personal.

The show's timeless score, sung so beautifully by the ensemble and performed so laudably and capably by the production's orchestra under the baton of conductor Robert Billig, has undergone some minor, almost imperceptible, changes and yet is as dramatically soaring as you probably recall, a flood of emotions sure to sweep over you. Rest assured, you will find yourself humming the anthemic "Do You Hear the People Sing" or "One Day More," the haunting "Bring Him Home" or "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," or the heartrending  "I Dreamed A Dream" or "On My Own," perhaps even the clever and amusing "Master of the House" - the score is filled to overflowing with signature tunes that fill your mind with melody and your heart with hope. Frankly, it is impossible to pick one song over the other as a favorite, so abundantly mesmerizing is the score and so superb are the performances in this production.

The talented cast, led by Ron Sharpe as the saintly Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela as his arch-nemesis, Inspector Javert, bring all the characters to life with total commitment, ensuring that audiences who have made Les Miserables a revered part of musical theater history will take to the newly reimagined production just as warmly as new audiences for whom a connection to the show has existed due to televised concerts and the ubiquitous cast albums that have proliferated throughout the last 25 years.

Loyal audiences can rest assured that the story's impact (which has been felt since Hugo's book was first published in 1862 - the timing of the book's publication resulted in its being a favorite of soldiers fighting in the American Civil War, which makes this national touring production during the Civil War Sesquicentennial year even more prescient and timely) remains as potent as ever, with the story made even more immediate and accessible by the staging and direction. If you find yourself unmoved by the tale of the heroic Jean Valjean and his efforts to find redemption and to right the wrongs of his errant past, then you must be made of stone. In fact, the penultimate scene in Act Two, during which Valjean is close to death and has written down his last confession to be read by his beloved Cosette after his demise - though clearly manipulative in its overt sentimentality - left me emotionally drained yet inspired and uplifted. And when the spirits of Fantine and Eponine appear onstage to escort Valjean to heaven, I was completely done in.

Among the many changes envisioned by the creative and artistic team - and brought to life onstage - is the set itself, designed by Matt Kinley and inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Gone is the iconic turntable that helped to set the original production apart from others on Broadway at the time. And while you might miss the cinematic sweep of the stage's revolve, Kinley's new scenic design creates a vision that is somehow more accessible and, in so many ways, presents a more traditional concept for a proscenium stage. Coupled with exquisite projections depicting the musical's various settings in 19th century France (the scenes in the famous sewers of Paris are particularly vivid), the gorgeous lighting design of Paule Constable (who bathes the stage in golden hues that are moody and evocative, giving much of the production a sepia-toned and more romantic feel), and the period-perfect costume design of both Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, Kinley's depiction of the slums of Paris, the factory where Fantine toils, Valjean's Paris pied-a-terre and, perhaps more importantly, the barricades upon which the students do battle in the 1832 Paris Uprising, are well conceived and exceptionally realized.

While the scenes upon the barricades work exceedingly well in the update, the restaging of Javert's suicide is less satisfying than in the original staging. Although I suspect that if this were my first experience with the show and not my sixth, I would be completely awestruck by the character's leap from the bridge - and the scene's impact is quite possibly more effective when viewed from the upper level seating rather than from the orchestra. Some special and technical effects are obviously designed to give folks in the nosebleed sections of the theater a bigger pay-off for their ticket price.

Across the board, the actors in this 25th anniversary remounting of Les Miserables are ideally cast, establishing a clear and palpable rapport with their audience. As Valjean, Sharpe is wonderful as he delivers, in extraordinarily fine voice (his "Bring Him Home" and "Who Am I?" are exactly what you hope to hear, if not more), his character's dramatic arc with finesse and expectEd Grace. Varela's Javert is threatening without even one iota of overacting, rather he keeps the unyielding lawman grounded in reality, rendering the character all the more menacing. Varela's performance of "Stars" is nothing less than stunning.

Jeremy Hays' expressive reading of Enjolras, the leader of the students' uprising, is valiantly inspiring and he leads the company in "One Day More" and "The People's Song" with the requisite romantic swagger that makes his character so appealing, cutting a dashing figure in his period costume and his blond locks creating a portrait that belongs on any number of romance novel covers.

As the doomed Fantine, Betsy Morgan walks a very fine line in creating a memorable characterization during her relatively short time onstage. Yet she does so admirably, performing  "I Dreamed A Dream" in such a dramatic fashion that it somehow seems new and original; in short, hers is a remarkable performance.

Cast as the equally doomed Eponine is mezzo Chasten Harmon, who brings a fresh delivery to the role, enacting Eponine with a charming insouciance that serves her well as she pursues the seemingly feckless Marius, played by Justin Scott Brown. The handsome Brown - boyish and appealing at first glance, becoming world-weary and wizened in the aftermath of the failed uprising - gives an impressively multi-dimensional reading of his role. Paired with Brown as his adoring (and adored) Cosette is thelovely Julie Benko, whose clear soprano breathes new vigor and meaning into "A Heart Full of Love."

Shawna Hamic and Michael Kostroff play the thieving and duplicitous Thenardiers with a sense of campy and comic abandon, given the opportunity to provide counterpoint to the plot's more dramatically portentous points with their well-timed and choreographed interludes. The pair's performance of "Master of the House" and "Beggar at the Feast" are certain audience favorites, made all the more effective by the acting talents of both Hamic and Kostroff, who clearly know their way around the stage.

There is so much to recommend in Les Miserables, and if you know someone who says they don't appreciate musicals, take them to see this show (although there may be no tickets left for the company's Nashville stand). Their mind - perhaps even their life - will be changed forever.  Be forewarned, however, when the cast sings the show's finale, which includes Sharpe's Valjean singing the lyric "To love another person is to see the face of God," you may find yourself reduced to tears, as was I - just embrace it, accept it and experience musical theater at its very best.


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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis