Storm the Barricades for “Les Miserables”

By Eva Phill;ipsWe exist in a remarkable sort of renaissance for musical theater. Indeed, the past 10 to 15 years has been characterized by an abundance of shows that successfully marry the flamboyant bombast and gleeful absurdity of classic musical theatre with eviscerating intimacy and poignant realness. Productions like Next to Normal, The Book of Mormon, Fun Home, Hadestown and Hamilton attest to this new vanguard of musical theatre that is as provocative as it is referential.

There was an earlier time, though, when the formula for monstrously successful musicals that is now being reconceived was solidified; a time that can be loosely referred to as the Andrew Lloyd Webber Golden era. It was an era where over-the-top emotionality and flourishes were prized above all else, and the sentimentality/spectacle one-two punch was the law of the land. Phantom of the Opera, CATS, and Miss Saigon took audiences by storm with operatic overtures, wild camp, and meticulously stylized melodic structures that ensured infectious popularity and staggering commercial success.

Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s 1980 musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables perfectly typifies the aesthetics and sensibilities that propelled this era of powerhouse musical theatre. The nearly three-hour musical is literally explosive, centering around the volatile events leading to and culminating in the June Rebellion in Paris; the emotional/relational stakes are heightened to be as grandiose as violent class warfare (freedom fighting and love-at-first sight are effectively analogous); and robust score captures the attention of all those who experience the show long after the final curtain.

Stopping at the Benedum Center through the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, this current national tour of Les Mis features a vibrant and impassioned cast that prevail despite pacing and lighting hindrances. Laurence Connor and James Powell do an excellent job of staging Cameron Mackintosh’s balls-to-the-barricade-walls vision of Boublil and Schönberg’s musical, and they successfully create an experience that feels brand new and captures the nascent energy of a show that has been viewed by over 75 million people. Superbly accenting Connor and Powell’s direction is the skilled work of Costume Designers Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland, and Set and Image Designer Matt Kinley. Kinley’s vivid design has a distinct verisimilitude that allows the audience to feel as if they are in a Victor Hugo illustration coming to life; and the costumes created by Neofitou and Rowland are sumptuously detailed, and completed the visual realism.

Performance-wise, the ensemble and lead cast of this Les Mis tour is as mighty and exceptional as any long-time fan of the show (like myself) could hope for, and certainly dazzled newcomers. Nick Cartell, who will inhabit the role of thief-turned-hero Jean Valjean for the last time in December after an impressive two-and-half-year run, is as much of a dynamo as his reputation boasts. Cartell is stunning dramatic tenor, and he efficaciously drives the story as the protagonist who dramatically changes the course of his life and, in turn, comes to care for the daughter of the tragic martyr Fantine (an impactful Mary Kate Moore), but must forever live in fear of the pertinaciously zealous enforcer of the law, Inspector Javert. Speaking of the ideological foil, Josh Davis staggeringly excellent, conveying all the fierce rigidity and devastating piousness that ultimately destroys the Inspector with astounding adroitness. This production also features the most relatable, and consequentially most heartbreaking, Éponine I have seen in the past decade. Phoenix Best is not only a stunningly gifted mezzo-soprano, but she imbues a crushing aloofness that belies heartache into Éponine that is refreshing to watch. Finally, in this cast of performing elites, it is necessary to raise a glass to the Master of the House and his cantankerous wife. I always contest that an indication of a stellar Les Mis is the caliber and effectiveness of the performers playing the thieving, lecherous Thénardiers, and Jimmy Smagula and Allison Guinn are raunchy, ribald stars. Guinn, as Madame Thénardier, is particularly incredibly, punching up the repulsed snark and gleeful callousness of her character to a new level altogether.

Les Misérables is every bit as moving, breathtaking, and enjoyable as it was when it premiered over 35 years ago. Without exaggeration, it would be a disservice to any longstanding or budding musical theatre enthusiast to miss out on this production. You have to hear the people sing, after all.

Les Misérables runs through Dec. 1 at the Benedum Center. For tickets and more information, visit the Cultural Trust online.

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