Once more to the Barricades with Les Miserables!

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The French revolution was brought to glorious life once again last night, onstage at Overture Center. In this touring production of the landmark musical Les Miserables, producer Cameron Mackintosh has refreshed the entire look and feel, with new staging, completely new sets and re-imagined choreography, which is really exciting for those of us who’ve seen the show multiple times. The production also makes (mostly) effective use of video, which gives several scenes visual punch that can only be achieved with a mix of live action and smart background film.

Similar to Mackintosh’s reboot of the other ‘80s musical theater blockbuster, Phantom of the Opera, the extraordinary music is the real centerpiece here, supported by a cast of universal and remarkable vocal talent. In this ensemble, there are no throw-away characters or two line moments that are handled by the second string. The cast was stacked with tremendously gifted vocalists, from Jean Valjean down to the shop girls in his factory and the lowliest soldier singing about revolution. And unlike the recent tour of RENT that came to town, the performers added only grace notes to the score to make the performances their own, which was both respectful to the original characterizations and deft—the small variations made the performance more exciting while subtlety displaying their substantial talent.

Nick Cartell, who played Hugo’s long suffering hero Valjean, came at his role with youthful energy and rage that is unusual for the leading part. From there he morphed easily into dignified but tortured business owner, father, and statesman. As his nemesis Javert, the angular and menacing Josh Davis employed a clipped, staccato delivery of his phrases early on, but then filled the theater with his glorious baritone in solos like “Stars.”

As Fantine, Mary Kate Moore imbued the tragic role with real strength and dignity. And from lyrical whispers to pain-filled verses, she showed off incredible vocal versatility and control. Similarly, Emily Bautista shattered the audience with her heartfelt and dynamic “On My Own.”

Then there are the kids. With big eyes and her munchkin voice, Sophie Knapp stole the audience’s hearts singing about her imaginary castle on a cloud. And minus the customary Cockney accent (which was always a little weird) but with double the spunk, Julian Emile Lerner made a grand entrance in every scene as Gavroche.

The show was energized with its uber-talented cast, but also by the pace, which was breakneck. There’s a lot to get through in three hours, but it went so smoothly and quickly, the audience didn’t have a moment to check their phones for the time. There was also a certain democracy in the performance which I appreciated. Nobody was regarded as “the star” and mugged for applause. No one hogged the limelight. Instead everyone was focused on telling the story and staying in the moment.

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 Me and my roommate Susan at the University of Iowa, 1990.    

Me and my roommate Susan at the University of Iowa, 1990. 

 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to admit that I’ve loved Les Miz for a long time. I have seen it five times over the last 20 years. The first time I was in college, and a touring production came to the performing arts center on campus. I had heard it was sensational — it debuted on Broadway just a couple years before — so I leapt at the chance to get tickets. I already had the tape of the original cast (yes TAPE), I had a sweatshirt with Cosette emblazoned across the front, and I had the wonder of a girl in her early 20s who desperately wanted to create a life in the theater.

So, I went. I sobbed. I was transformed. I memorized the entire cast album. I fantasized about playing Eponine. And then I grew up and saw a thousand other plays and musicals. Every once in awhile I clicked on a video of a flashmob singing the finale of Les Miz’s Act I. I saw plenty of parodies. I watched lesser touring productions in different cities. Finally I saw a community theater version with a lot of heart and some really crummy costumes. So I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the latest tour, coming to Madison this week. I mean, how many times can you really get excited about manning the barricades?

Obviously, given the caliber of this tour, the answer is many more than five.

Last night I also had the unqualified joy of bringing a friend to see the show — his first time. And the look on his face as the curtain went down, and his smile, that lingered in the lobby afterwards, were proof that what is magic about Les Miz remains — and perhaps is amplified, in this terrific refresh of a Broadway classic.