One does not simply review Les Mis—at least, not when it’s this stunning revival of the epic that took the world by storm when the novel debuted in 1862 and again when the musical premiered in London in 1985. With song after iconic song sung in full voice, the touring version of the 2014 Broadway revival is likely to please both avid fans and the unicorn-esque newbie. If you are worried a classic has been tweaked too much—don’t be. This looks and feels like your Les Misérables. And in fact, similar productions came through D.C. twice before on the 25th Anniversary tour.
If you have not seen Les Mis in the past seven years, here is what you need to know: the iconic turntable is gone. It’s been replaced by effective yet sparingly used projections that bring the streets of Paris, waves beneath the Chain Gang, and stench of the sewers to vivid 3-D life. There are other updates but none are so different that they are worth calling out.
Set against the backdrop of 19th-century France and featuring new staging and reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Boublil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables has music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer from the original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, additional material by James Fenton and original adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. The production is designed by Matt Kinley with costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt and projections by Fifty-Nine Productions.
The direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell finds that satisfying balance between refreshing and familiar that so many revivals aim for and miss. Sound by Mick Potter brought the stakes of the barricade to vivid life as the audience hears bullets whizzing by. The lighting design by Paule Constable supports the production by making it easy to find soloists on a stage filled with 20 or more cast members. The juxtaposition of the cool and warm light works as a thermostat for scenes. It’s an eternal winter where Javert roams while Cosette and Marius tend to have a warm magic hour summer glow about them.
Les Misérables accomplishes several feats during its 175-minute tale: it manages to make the audience care about both a macro story (the French Revolution) and a micro story (the journey of Jean Valjean) without any spoken dialogue. Though I have experienced the production before (I saw a national touring production at the arguably perfect viewing age of 13 and full disclosure: I was in a non-equity regional version in 2013), I was reminded again as a fully grown up audience member just how fast-paced and gripping this show is from the moment the house lights dim. The audience immediately journeys to 19th-century France. People are mistreated. Those with the power are not good. Jean Valjean is angry. And it’s valid — 19 years for a loaf bread, I mean — c’mon. Nick Cartell’s Valjean morphs from embittered thief to dignified mayor and loving father with ease and believability. His vocal control is ear candy, his “Bring Him Home” divine.
One of the great triumphs of this production is the vocal chops across the board. This cast can sing. Some musical moments were simply perfectly executed. I’ll name a few: Eponine (Phoenix Best) and Fantine’s (Melissa Mitchell) duet in the Finale, the students’ harmony in “Drink with Me to Days Gone By,” and the entire cast (save Fantine) in “One Day More.” My only complaint is that there is too much speak-singing. The audience knows the score and wants to hear each carefully chosen note.
The show is well cast. Joshua Grosso’s Marius is everything you want in a young lover in a musical: wide-eyed, hopeful, heartbroken, and present, with a voice for days. The Thenardiers are appropriately despicable. There is poignance in the scenes with the students. They seem like actual young dudes who don’t totally know what they’re in for. The hair, makeup, and costumes contribute to the story beautifully.
The most jaw-dropping performance comes from understudy Andrew Love who was on for Javert. I admit that I was disappointed when I got the news that I would be seeing an understudy. And I take this moment to apologize to understudies everywhere because Andrew Love’s Javert is exquisite. I don’t know that I’ve experienced a more holy theatrical experience than his “Stars.”
This is a production of Les Mis that will satisfy Les Mis lovers. It’s full-throated. If you don’t want an evening where you feel feelings, stay home. But if you could go for a night sitting in the dark being moved by a story of grace and redemption and hearing a timeless score executed flawlessly, book your tickets.
Running Time: Two hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.