Review: ‘Les Misérables’ at the Hippodrome Theatre

The Hippodrome Theatre has bookended its 2018 season with a pair of heavy-lifting musicals about democracy and revolution. For openers, it has that 30th-anniversary touring production of Les Misérables — a powder keg of a send-off for a subscription series that culminates in June with the Baltimore premiere of Hamilton.

Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at the Hippodrome Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables at the Hippodrome Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Hard to believe, but 30 seasons have passed since we saw Les Misérables in its pre-Broadway bow at The Kennedy Center in 1987. It has lost none of its power to stir our emotions.

Direct from a celebrated two-and-a-half year Broadway return, the current staging, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, carries the show forward. Moving beyond mechanical effects like revolving stages and massive barricade sets, it now boasts astonishing electronic spectacles of smoke and light only possible today in our CGI age.

At its core, though, the script by Alain Boublil (and others) hews close to Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel. It delivers a scolding perspective on the impersonal cruelty and rigidity that permeate every level of a secular society, finding hope in Hugo’s prescription of joining “a crusade” toward salvation.

Against the lush backdrop of Claude-Michel Schonberg’s dramatic chords and romantic melodies is the same densely-packed tale of martyred mothers, abused orphans, parted lovers, blinded lawmen, student radicals and the sobering price of “empty chairs.” Hugo never shied away from the question of a power larger than oneself, and this musical adaptation also brushes aside moral relativism in pursuit of absolutes.

Perhaps the most unexpected star of the staging now at the Hippodrome is Scenic Designer Matt Kinley. His three-dimensional backdrops and set pieces suggest Hugo’s own graphic illustrations of the text. In several key scenes, the painterly effects and projections achieve a pure cinematic quality that greatly enhances the storytelling in an almost revolutionary way.

Likewise, some notable new orchestrations for this tour by Christopher Janke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker (in support of the original charts by John Cameron) lend a greater intimacy to some solos. Even the ploddingly sing-songy “Master of the House” number benefits enormously by a variety of fresh approaches.

All of the leading players brandish tremendous singing voices, though at times I longed for more considerate enunciation out of all those angelic throats. Audiences have enough to absorb without trying to decipher castaway lyrical snippets.

While this production’s cast has more the feel of a cohesive ensemble than previous stagings, Nick Cartell and Josh Davis both manage to emerge as star talents by curtain call.

Nick Cartell as the forlorn convict Jean Valjean displays powerhouse singing. On opening night the audience exploded after Cartell’s heartfelt prayer for Marius, “Bring Him Home” — the most delicate and moving performance of the solo that I have ever heard given.

Josh Davis as Valjean’s lifelong persecutor Inspector Javert gave the more consistent portrayal. He also moved the crowd to a spontaneous ovation with his self-righteous soul-searching in “Stars” and the firecracker swan song solo, “Soliloquy.”

The female leads are perhaps more fragile figures than Hugo envisioned. But certainly Mary Kate Moore’s Fantine evoked tears of sympathy with “I Dreamed a Dream,” and Paige Smallwood, as Eponine, wrung oceans of emotion out of the exquisite “On My Own.” Jillian Butler’s porcelain-ingénue portrayal of Cosette provided many of the night’s sweetest sounds in her love songs with Marius.

Marius was always thoroughly likable and well presented by Joshua Grosso. The most surprising showstopper all evening occurs early in the opening prologue when Andrew Maughan seizes the stage with his barrel-chested delivery as the Bishop of Digne.

The kids in this cast are particularly winning. Madeleine Guilbot and Vivi Howard as Little Cosette and Young Eponine stole hearts, particularly in the haunting “Castle on a Cloud.” And the rascal Gavroche was in strong tiny hands belonging to Parker Dzuba and Sam Middleton on alternating dates.

Allison Guinn as Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables at the Hippodrome Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Allison Guinn as Madame Thenardier in Les Misérables at the Hippodrome Theatre. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

As usual, the married scoundrels known as the Thenardiers stole their portion of the show. J. Anthony Crane was suitably broad and wicked as the husband, while Allison Guinn more than fleshed out the role of his wife and turned it into her own tour de force comic showcase.

If you’re in the mood for musicals with some meat to them, don’t let this show get out of Baltimore without a sample. The season’s just getting started but the countdown’s on. The democratic revolution won’t be complete until June, when Hamilton arrives at the Hippodrome.

Running Time: Two hours and 55 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.

Les Misérables plays through October 14, 2018, at the Hippodrome Theatre at the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw Street, Baltimore, MD. Purchase tickets by phone at 800-982-ARTS or go online.