BWW Review: LES MISERABLES at Benedum Center Doesn't Reinvent an Old Standard, But Spruces It Up a Bit
People get VERY worked up about their precious Les Miserables- case in point, I saw a seven-year-old boy two rows in front of me, dressed in a full Javert costume at the Benedum stop of the national tour. It is so well-known and so well-loved that even if you're not a theatre person you probably know at least a few of the best-known songs, like "On My Own" and "Bring Him Home" from constant media saturation. Others you'd recognize from reference and parody: nearly every send-up of musicals from the 1980s on has spoofed "One Day More" and its increasingly complex but rousing counterpoint.
Nonetheless, this isn't quite the Les Mis people may remember, it's the now not-so-new "new staging" that had purists up in arms a few years ago. Gone are the intentionally grody synthesizer textures, the slow-moving but imposing turntable set pieces, and the stylized, non-realistic movement that made tableaus of all the major sequences (i.e. the weird, lurching marching-in-place choreography that was ubiquitously parodied as well). It's as if Laurence Connor and James Powell, assisted by the musical staging of Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt approached the text the way one approaches Shakespeare, where there's not one iconic way to visually represent the show, as opposed to, well, Les Miserables, which any twenty theatre kids in a room with a copy of the script could probably restage from memory.
I doubt I need to write much of a plot synopsis or teaser here: a man steals a loaf of bread and a ton of people die. Eventually almost all of them go to heaven. If you don't know the plot of Les Mis by now, I'm not sure how you found this web site.
Of course, both new audience members and dedicated Mizzies of all ages will care less about the changes to the staging (which include some nods to the almost-as-iconic film, including a restaged opening sequence on the prison barge) than they will about the cast. And this is a DAMN GOOD CAST. As Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell sings wonderfully and acts the role vigorously, evolving in both performance and vocal style over Valjean's long and storied life. Cartell must be a book-canon-observing "brick man," because I've never seen a Valjean as nasty, almost feral, as his young Valjean. While Colm Wilkinson stuck to the saintly Valjean, whose few moments of crime seemed like momentary lapses of reason, Cartell's deeply wounded and broken young Valjean is almost a werewolf, a totally unrepentent and violent man incapable of reform. That he does reform, and sees the light through his nihilism after an act of mercy from the Bishop (Andrew Maughan, who makes a second appearance in Act 2 as the chilling, mocking offstage voice of the national guard), is what makes his character so beloved. His counterpart, Josh Davis, packs the booming heft of voice that sells Inspector Javert. If David's Javert is a much more stagnant character than Cartell's Valjean, blame Victor Hugo, not Josh Davis- that's in keeping with Javert's intensely unbending psyche, which shatters when it cannot compromise.
One peculiarity of the new staging and direction is that, both for better and for worse it has shaken the extremely affected delivery style and mandatory British accents of the usual version. There are some characters and performers for whom this is helpful: Mary Kate Moore, as Fantine, is able to sing out quite affectingly without having the shadow of Susan Boyle hanging over her shoulder, for one. This does, however, create some lumps in the presentation. Given that Monsieur Thenardier is characterized musically and stylistically in Les Miserables as a British cockney music-hall figure, Jimmy Smagula seems obliged to affect the usual spiv stylings in his portrayal, despite the fact that Allison Guinn, as Madame Thenardier, goes Midwestern white trash instead. Her screaming, braying, thoroughly 2019 take on the role was an audience favorite, recalling a pre-Ambien Roseanne Barr. The Thenardiers are given a certain license to break the fourth wall and improvise banter, some of which feels extremely contemporary in a way that lightens the somewhat burdensome heaviness of the material that surrounds them. Similarly, Joshua Grosso's Marius has the most personality I've ever seen in a Marius before- rather than the mangenue, he's full on awkward fuckboy, and his performance on "In My Life/A Heart Full of Love" finds the humor in love at first sight, rather than playing it as a straightforward fairy tale romance.
It all comes to a weepy end, of course; more than half the characters join a suicide mission, Valjean succumbs to old age and fatigue, Javert jumps off the bridge and Eponine dies of being the third wheel. Other than a last-minute interruption by the forever-indestructible Thenardiers, the second act of the show can be as depressing as the show's title implies. But the rousing finale, with its words of hope and activism, sends people out tearful yet inspired. Leaving the theatre and walking to the garage, I heard people on the street talking excitedly and passionately about the themes Victor Hugo engaged with in his novel: the line between justice and mercy, whether redemption is possible, the difference between Old and New Testament ideas of Christian morality. In the garage, while I paid my parking ticket, I heard a woman weeping loudly, almost wailing to her companion. When she calmed down, I overheard her mention that her father, like Jean Valjean, had been in prison and come back, changed for the better. "I wish he were still here to see this with me," I heard her say just as I went upstairs. Friends, I don't know what you do or don't believe about religion, souls, the afterlife, or ghosts, but if Victor Hugo himself were here, I can only imagine that he would say, echoing the end of the tale of Jean Valjean, "He WAS here with you, and he DID see."