From the opening prisoners' chorus (moved, in this smart new staging, from a prison yard to a slave ship) through the sublime finale three hours later, the show's canny combination of a conventional but memorable score, compelling characters and situations (the source is, after all, a literary classic), and fluid staging (made even more so by the projected video) grabs and holds your attention and emotions. It remains, in my view, one of the most effective pieces of musical theatre of the late 20th century. No wonder it's now the world’s longest running musical, dethroning the seemingly eternal “Cats”.
Based on the Victor Hugo novel, “Les Misérables” focuses on the conflict between the former jailer Javert and the ex-convict Jean Valjean. The former is inflexible, fixated on sin, and sees himself doing God's duty by punishing the wicked. The latter is compassionate, unselfish, and understanding. He's convinced God gave him a second chance so that he could help others.
When Javert prays, it’s for vengeance. When Valjean prays, it’s for someone else’s life. Valjean is pursuing the luminous ideal, Javert its dark opposite. Both claim to be Christian. When, in the final moments, the chorus sings “to love another person is to see the face of God”, there’s not much doubt about which side the show favors.
It is, in short, a powerful refutation of smug self-righteousness and laissez-faire ruthlessness, both of which have been poisoning domestic political discourse for many years. Its appearance locally just a few weeks before an election that pits “every man for himself” against “we’re all in this together” could not be more timely.
As Valjean Peter Lockyer shows not only a ringing head voice and well-integrated falsetto (not surprising, given that his impressive credentials include a stint as Marius, a role that lies more in the tenor than baritone range) but solid low notes as well. He’s a little less physically imposing than I’d expect for a character who is supposed to have nearly superhuman strength, but he’s so thoroughly invested in the role that I quickly set that aside.
Andrew Varela looks every inch the stocky and brutish Javert and matches it with a powerful voice. He brings a bit more depth to the character than I have seen in some previous performances, which greatly enhances his confrontations with Valjean and makes his eventual suicide (beautifully staged here with the help of a flying rig) that much more plausible.
As Fantine, for whose early death Valjean is an unwitting catalyst, Betsy Morgan makes the transition from fresh-faced and healthy to downtrodden and dying very effectively, and the deathbed scene in which Valjean promises to make amends by protecting her daughter Cosette is appropriately moving (don’t come to this show without a hanky). Lauren Wiley is most winning as the adult Cosette, while Hannah Isabel Bautista as Little Cosette had a nice star turn on opening night with “Castle on a Cloud” (she alternates in the role with Abbey Rose and Erin Clearlock).
Max Quinlan’s Marius is charming in his early scenes and, more importantly, convincingly tragic in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”—sung here on a bare stage with Marius surrounded by the ghosts of his fallen comrades from the barricades of the ill-fated 1832 revolution (hanky time again). Brianna Carlson-Goodman is a particularly intense Éponine, dying of unrequited love for Marius and, eventually, a National Guard bullet. “On My Own” (a favorite with young musical theatre singers) is the character’s big Act II number and she makes the most of it.
Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamie play the comic villain roles of Thénardier and Madame Thénardier (those champions of enlightened self-interest) a bit too broadly for my taste, but they do so with such perfect consistency that I expect my quibble is with director James Powell (who otherwise seems to have made excellent choices) rather than with the actors. Besides, the opening night audience loved them.
Other strong performances include Marcus D’Angelo’s courageous urchin Gavroche (he alternates with Joshua Colley) and Jason Forbach’s doomed Enjolras, although in the final analysis there’s really not a weak link anywhere.
New staging ideas aside, much of this new “Les Mis” looks familiar. The biggest change is probably the absence of the turntable and the use of the aforementioned video projections to provide a sense of movement in key scenes. That’s particularly noticeable in the Act I finale, in which the actors appear to be marching through the streets of Paris, and in the progression of Valjean and Marius through the sewers in Act II. Fans of the show will be happy to see that none of their favorite moments are gone and that some (such as Javert’s suicide) have been enhanced. The sound mix—always an iffy proposition at the Fox—was quite good, at least from where I sat in row F.
“The Christian ideal”, wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1910, “has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” Certainly both Victor Hugo’s novel and the musical based on it are testaments to how difficult it is, while our current political culture seems to demonstrate what happens when it’s left untried. I’d like to believe that a show like Les Misérables can change hearts and minds, but given the infinite human capacity for compartmentalization and denial, I’m not sanguine about that notion.
Still, this is a moving and entertaining show regardless of your political color, and I just can’t recommend this new production highly enough. Go see it. It’s fun. It’s a terrific story and it’s filled with great music. And if it convinces you that we really are all in this together, so much the better.
“Les Misérables” continues at the Fox in Grand Center through October 28th. For more information: fabulousfox.com.