Regional Reviews: Raleigh/Durham
Also see Garrett's review of Company
The story centers on Jean Valjean (a dynamic Nick Cartell), a man forced into hard labor after he was caught stealing a loaf of bread. When he escapes, his penal officer Javert (a commanding Josh Davis) makes it his personal mission to find Valjean, tracking him across France with a fanatical focus. Unlike Javert, Valjean takes a lesson of mercy bestowed on him by a priest, and he takes a new identity, using his new prosperity to help others. Among those whose lives he touches is Fantine (a lovely Melissa Mitchell), a young woman who has turned to increasingly desperate methods to provide for her daughter, Cosette (portrayed in her younger years by Sophie Knapp at this performance and later by the beautiful soprano Jillian Butler). Cosette is enslaved by her foster family the Thénardiers (portrayed with delicious devilishness by J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn) until Valjean rescues her and takes her to Paris, but Javert is not far behind, and fate conspires to keep their paths intertwined.
If you're familiar with the novel or any of its film adaptations, you'll quickly realize that many scenes are omitted as the musical skips forward in time. If you're not, the synopsis in the playbill will come in handy. But Les Misérables is remarkably effective in establishing and developing all of its characters and their conflicts. Crucial to that success is the memorable score, with music by Claude-Michael Schönberg and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer after the original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. The score leans toward an operatic structure, with all dialogue sung and with musical themes that follow certain characters, maintaining their emotional resonance. Since their debut thirty years ago, many of these songs, including "On My Own" and "Bring Him Home," have become Broadway classics. For this revival the original orchestrations by John Cameron were updated by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker, and while the music is tremendous, there are moments when it sounded a bit "canned" or tinny at the performance I attended, which might say more about the sound design of this particular theater than the touring production itself.
The role of Jean Valjean requires a strong tenor, and Cartell proves exceedingly that he has the voice to carry such a production. But this entire cast sounds strong and capable, especially with such a demanding score. Among the most noteworthy are J. Anthony Cane and Allison Guinn, who breathe new life into the comic-relief innkeeping duo, the Thénardiers; Gunn's Madame Thénardier is a true scene-stealer and a highlight of the show.
It is always difficult to undertake a revival of a musical that was so iconic in its initial Broadway run, and which is cherished by an entire generation of theater goers. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have served this musical well, adding ornamentation and cinematic flair but not tinkering much with its well-crafted essence. Inspired by Hugo's paintings, Matt Kinley's set and image design establish more of an authentic period feel than the somewhat caricatured look of the original production, and he keeps this complex story flowing, with massive sets moving seamlessly on and offstage. Projected backgrounds by Fifty-Nine Productions add drama that feels inspired by the recent film adaptation. Lighting by Tony Award winning designer Paule Constable also contributes greatly to the mood of the piece.
Les Misérables tackles several gripping questions that we still face in our society today, including how to balance justice against mercy, and charity against security. We have come a long way in some respects from nineteenth-century France, but Les Misérables is a useful reminder of our common humanity and the grace we are capable of showing, even in the gravest of circumstances. What better way to learn that lesson than through music.
Les Misérables, presented by SunTrust Broadway February 4, 2018, at Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St. Durham NC. Tickets can be purchased online at www.dpacnc.com, www.ticketmaster.com, or the Ticket Center at DPAC in person or by phone at 919-680-2787
Music: Claude-Michael Schönberg