By Gordon Meyer
Back in the mid-1980s, for three years in a row, my birthday present to myself was a trip to London and at least one other European city. I have always loved London, and as a fan of live theatre, made it a point to see a number of West End shows during my visits there. In early 1986, there was a lot of buzz about a new musical, a contemporary opera really, produced by Cameron Mackintosh in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company that had a limited run at the Barbican Theatre (the RSC’s London home) and, due to its popularity, transferred to the Palace Theatre, where it ran for decades.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now. I’m talking about Les Misérables, still running strong after almost 40 years. Seeing the current national tour, now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood. California through September 10, 2023 was a revelation. Yes, it’s the same show I initially saw in London back in 1986, but it’s been reimagined with staging that’s very different from the original production. Some of the more elaborate set elements, including a massive turntable on stage, are gone, no doubt to accommodate engagements that can be as short as a few days for the current tour. It’s different, to be sure. But the current production, with musical staging by Geoffrey Garratt, works magnificently.
The set and image design by Matt Kinley, while obviously designed to accommodate narrower stages than the original productions, none the less are just as effective as storytelling tools. Honestly, even people like myself who were lucky enough to have seen the original production, either in its London West End or Broadway/US tour incarnations, can’t help but feel more than satisfied with the look and feel of this production, including the very effective use of video projections for some of the settings.
But enough about the physical qualities of the current touring production. Les Misérables is a very human story of redemption told in operatic form that requires a cast with extraordinary acting and singing chops and this production is perfectly cast, beginning with Nick Cartell as the show’s hero. Jean Valjean. For those not familiar with the story, Valjean is a man sent to prison for stealing a loaf of bread because his sister’s son was dying. In both Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name and the musical itself, once released on parole following 19 years “a slave of the law,” Valjean painfully learns that his parole paperwork makes him an outcast in society. Thanks to the intervention of the Bishop of Digne (Randy Jeter), Valjean is given the means to break his parole and essentially erase his past and begin life with a new identity.
Almost 10 years after Valjean broke his parole, we see him as both a now successful owner of a factory and the mayor of a French town where he is a respected citizen. However, his former prison guard, Javert (Preston Truman Boyd) is now a police inspector in that same town. Javert is what I would call a tragic villain. He is rigid in his adherence to the law with the assumption that once a thief, always a thief. It’s a challenging role because his character is so relentless in his decades long pursuit of Valjean. His rigidity is what makes him a tragic figure. Like all the main characters in Les Misérables, this is a role that requires tremendous vocal chops and Boyd delivers big time. It would be easy for the actor playing Javert to make the character one dimensional, but Boyd somehow manages to project a hint of humanity, especially with his emotional climax at the end of the show.
Another standout in the cast was Hayley Dortch as Fantine, the factory worker tuned prostitute who, on her deathbed, entrusts her young daughter Cosette to Valjean for safekeeping. Fantine is only on stage for a brief time, but it’s a pivotal role. Dortch follows in the footsteps of Patty LuPone in the original London production and Anne Hathaway who won an Oscar for her performance in the film version. Like those two notable actresses, Dortch gives a heartbreaking performance.
One of the other tragic figures in Les Misérables is the character of Eponine (Christine Heesun Hwang), the initially pampered daughter of comic villains, the Thénardiers (Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall). When we first meet Eponine as a child, her parents are the unscrupulous innkeepers that Fantine has been paying to take care of the young Cosette. As a young woman, she and her parents have become Parisian street thugs, while Eponine herself is in love with Marius (Geoffrey Lee Rodriguez), a budding revolutionary who sees her as a friend, but does not love her the way she loves him. Like Ms Dortch as Fantine, Hwang’s portrayal of Eponine is truly heartbreaking and she delivers the emotional goods.
Ever since the original production of Les Miz, the Thénardiers have always been an audience favorite. Yes, they’re villains to be sure. They are both greedy and unscrupulous, but Crowe and Hall are deliciously comical, especially when we first meet them and these two actors play their roles with comic gusto, especially Crowe.
Here’s my bottom line. The creative team behind the current North American tour of Les Misérables has produced a version that is a triumph, whether you’re experiencing the show for the first time or have seen earlier productions.
According to the official website, following the Los Angeles run, the current tour is slated to play in 30 cities between now and August 2024. However, during a brief post-performance conversation I had with the gentleman who so ably conducted the pit orchestra, it’s likely to continue touring for at least a year after that. I have no idea how many of the current cast memebrs will be with this tour through its current run, but, based on the quality of these performers, whoever is on stage in subsequent cities will no doubt be a credit to the material. It’s definitely worth seeing live on stage.
Tour information can be found at us-tour.lesmis.com