Review: LES MISERABLES at ASU Gammage

The North American Tour production runs through December 10th at ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe AZ.

By: Dec. 09, 2023
Review: LES MISERABLES at ASU Gammage

Timothy Shawver has served as a principal contributor to the pages of BroadwayWorld for over fourteen years. An ariZoni award-winning actor and director with a broad range of credits with the Phoenix region’s theatres, he brings unique perspectives to his coverage of theatre. In this review, he focuses on the North American Tour production of LES MISÉRABLES, on stage at ASU Gammage through December 10th.

The flagship 1980s British import mega-musical has docked at Tempe’s Gammage Auditorium with a one-weekend run of its North American Tour. This production of LES MISÉRABLES, affectionately called LES MIZ by many, is a solid rendition of the epic musical and a talent showcase for performers and designers.

LES MIZ follows the journey of Jean Valjean, a former convict who breaks parole but seeks redemption pursued by the relentless Javert. After adopting a new identity as Monsieur Madeleine, a successful factory owner and mayor, his true identity is at risk of exposure when Javert, now an inspector, brings in a man he mistakenly believes to be the real Valjean.

Faced with the choice of seeing an innocent man wrongly accused, Valjean reveals himself as the true ex-convict. Valjean flees from Javert's pursuit, rescues the dying Fantine, a destitute former worker at his factory, and promises to care for her daughter, Cosette. Valjean resettles in Paris with Cosette, setting the stage for the unfolding saga of love, sacrifice, and redemption against the backdrop of 19th-century France.

At the forefront of this production’s success is Nick Cartell as Valjean. The former Arizonan and ASU alum has performed the role over 1000 times. Rather than tiring of the role, his complete familiarity with the material seems to have perfected his moment-to-moment acting and allowed him vocal creativity within world-class technique. It’s a stellar and heart-felt performance. 

Preston Truman Boyd is a fantastic foil. His is a red meat performance. Ridiculously well-spoken and sung, it's a “born to play…” type situation that we are the beneficiary of.

De-emphasis on British accents in this edition of LES MIZ is a joyous uncoupling from a former strait jacket on the material. 1987’s Broadway premiere was a clone of the London production. British accents for French characters came along for that ride. That Trevor Nunn staging expanded into dozens of National Tours and became part of the DNA of the show. But why British accents if they’re French? 

It’s a directorial paradox. You can’t perform the show in English with French accents. That would undermine the suspension of disbelief; Constantly reminding us the characters would actually be speaking (and singing) in French. Trevor Nunn said of his premiere concept that British accents were key to the show’s narrative. The audience could instantly determine a character’s class standing from the moment they spoke. But as LES MIZ has aged and become more and more familiar, we don’t need our hand held to know who’s who.

It’s not a complete descent into West Coast American. It’s more of a Mid-Atlantic, colonial-type thing. The letter “H” isn’t glaringly missing from “Master of the “H”ouse”. People say the “R”s at the ends of their words. By sanding the edges on that stuff, directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have unshackled characters from stereotypes, made them more relatable, and let the actors bring more nuance.

More so than anyone, the dialect softening allows Matt Cowle and Victoria Huston-Elam (the Thenardiers) to really excel. They bring their comic relief through posture, gestures, walks, and expressions rather than indulging in simply “Let’s make fun of how poor British people talk.”

Hayley Dortch soars performing Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” (the 11 o’clock number in LES MIZ is sung at 8:15).

Jake David Smith and Delaney Guyer as Marius and Cosette play the pair like a fresh-faced deer-in-the-headlights meeting a charming doe. Believable instant love. Truly, it’s like the end of Bambi when Bambi meets his girlfriend. The pair lit up my favorite 10 minutes of the show “In My Life” through “A Heart Full of Love”.

Phoenix Best (Eponine) seemed like she was in a different show than the rest. Her voice is strong, but the acting bar is set so high by her castmates that she doesn’t quite make it. Likewise, Devin Archer is more subdued and a little milder than your average Enjolras.

Projections realized by Finn Ross, particularly the forced perspective work depicting the sewers, are a welcome integration of technology designers didn’t have in 1987. Indeed, the grandstanding of the original mammoth set is replaced with rich images often inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.

Lighting by Paula Constable is likewise responsible for successfully moving the tech focus off of the physical set and onto imagery. She effectively presents diverse locales and times of day. Her work is impeccable ~ abstract, when appropriate, and never bringing attention to itself until called for, boosting its overall effectiveness.

Here, modern advances in theatre tech increase the art, not the spectacle.

The LES MIZ Broadway cast recording lived in the first two slots of my 1989 10-disc, CD-changer. I haven’t seen the show in 20 years and haven’t heard the music beyond the most well-known songs much the same. It was a delightful visit with an old friend. A well-produced incarnation of a show well deserved to be considered a classic. Did we ever land on a particular name for the LES MIZ/PHANTOM OF THE OPERA subset of Broadway shows? Pop-opera-mega-musical? Whatever we call them, LES MIZ lives at the forefront and has shown the most widespread staying power.

The show runs through December 10th at ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe AZ.

ASU Gammage ~ 1200 S. Forest Avenue, Tempe, AZ 480) 965-3434