EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of our two reviews of Les Misérables. To read the other review by Liz Alderson, click here.
In an era when revolutions are named by the season during which they occur (i.e., “Arab Spring”), an 1862 historical drama written by 19th-century French novelist and political activist Victor Hugo (1802-85) still resonates. Indeed, Les Misérables is even more powerful and poignant when contrasted against such modern events.
French lyricist and librettist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg’s 1980 musical adaptation of Les Misérables, adapted for English audiences by Herbert Kretzmer, Trevor Nunn, and John Caird and produced then and now by Cameron Macintosh, was a colossal hit in London’s West End in 1985 and became a Broadway musical sensation in 1987. For the past quarter of a century, since the first U.S. tour headed for the hinterlands in 1987, touring versions of Les Misérables have packed houses from coast to coast.
On Valentine’s Day, Broadway Series South and the North Carolina Theatre brought Les Misérables back to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, this time without its trademark turntable set but with brooding sets inspired by Hugo’s original artwork. A packed house turned out on Tuesday to greet Cameron McIntosh’s new 25th anniversary production of Les Misérables.
Old married men and women and newly dating couples came filled with high expectations for an evening of adventure and romance, and few left the theater without having their hopes fulfilled. Indeed, several times during the show, the audience responded enthusiastically with sustained applause and some cheers to solo performances as inspired as the author himself had been when he wrote of his native revolution in 1862.
Victor Hugo’s tale centers around Jean Valjean, a petty thief-turned-hero; but the story would not exist without his cohort of revolutionary characters: the abused factory worker-turned-whore Fantine and her illegitimate daughter Cosette; Marius, the idealistic student revolutionary; Inspector Javert, the legal official who obeys the letter of the law, even though it might argue with everything in his heart; and the many minor characters whose very humanity rises far above their secondary roles in the play. Each one has become a stereotype of sorts, an emblem of the 1832 Paris Uprising and of every other revolution to follow it.
Les Misérables persists today because of the heart and soul Hugo poured into the novel’s characters, and the humanity that buoys every line of the story of a population determined to break free from tyranny. That such a bleak tale could be transformed into an inspirational musical, now translated into 21 languages and shown to hundreds of millions of people throughout the world, speaks to the power of Hugo’s tale and the richness of its themes of good and evil, and of romantic and redemptive passion.
To carry such a powerful story, one must rely on transformative voices, such as that of Jean Valjean as by J. Mark McVey, who made his Broadway debut as Jean Valjean after winning the Helen Hayes Award for Outstanding Actor in the show while on tour. McVey’s 2,900+ performances in plays such as this and other Broadway notables, such as My Fair Lady and Carousel, served him well in developing the powerful, yet subtle, changes in tone he employs during some of the play’s most provocative moments.
When McVey sings “Bring Him Home,” Jean Valjean’s prayer-like solo in the second act, the alternating whispers and soaring pleas in his agile tenor brought the audience to tears and created one of several moments when enthusiastic applause stopped the show.
The actor’s daughter, Kylie McVey, alternates with Juliana Simone as Little Cosette, the child Valjean raises after her mother, the dying prostitute Fantine, begs him to care for her, and the Thénardiers’ spoiled daughter, Young Éponine.
Andrew Varela’s performance as Inspector Javert offers two solos (“Stars” and “Soliloquy”) that sketch the character’s depth and showcase Varela’s powerful baritone. When he sings his “Soliloquy,” the moment of his suicide reveals the complications of human nature that Hugo explored so eloquently.
Javert’s death is not only his realization that his own beliefs may be wrong, but it is also the moment when Hugo parallels the downfall of the regime against which the revolutionaries fight. Onstage, the suicidal leap Varela makes from a Paris bridge is highlighted by backlit projections created by Fifty-Nine Productions, on a set designed by Matt Kinley, with Hugo’s own paintings acting as inspiration.
The female voices in this production offer more color and substance to back up the powerful male voices. Chasten Harmon (Éponine) and Julie Benko (Cosette) share a love for the student, Marius (Max Quinlan); and their moments on stage are both impassioned and strong.
Harmon’s “On My Own” solo displays her vocal range and her acting chops, not a small feat when compared to acting and singing of such seasoned professionals as the male leads. When Éponine is thinking of Marius while the rest of the world is sleeping, Harmon sings, “And when I lose my way I close my eyes, And he has found me”; and the romance comes alive and her conflict is apparent. Chasten Harmon’s passion grows throughout the solo, leading audiences to feel a stronger connection to her and to gasp when Éponine, who has joined the resistance, is killed trying to return to the barricade.
Julie Benko’s Cosette is sweeter and lighter than Harmon’s Éponine. Her love for Marius is more innocent than her foster sister Éponine’s, and her voice reflects that difference in their personalities. Benko’s adept soprano, though not matured, shows range appropriate for the character. The theater world is certain to see more from this singer, who is currently studying for her BFA in Theater at New York University.
Perhaps most notable in Hugo’s Les Misérables are the crowds, the people who fought for their democracy in the 1832 Paris Uprising and around whom the larger part of the story revolves. In an early scenes, set in 1823, factory workers take the stage for a rousing version of “At the End of the Day,” a song that forecasts the revolution to come less than 10 years later.
One of the crowd favorites is “Master of the House,” in which the Thénardiers (Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic) have taken in Cosette and treat her as their slave, Cinderella-style, while spoiling their own daughter Éponine. At this point in the performance, audiences need the comedic respite; and the song underlines the epic chasm of misunderstanding between the bourgeoisie and the common people that will become the ultimate reason behind the revolution.
In Paris in 1832, the revolutionaries and students sing “Drink with Me to Days Gone By,” which depicts the last bit of revelry before the barricades are overrun and the students die, and provides the moment when Valjean disappears into the sewers (shown on the back screen as a shadowy tunnel), carrying a wounded and unconscious Marius in his arms.
As with most romantic novels, the tale concludes with all its loose ends tied up neatly in a bow. The romance of Cosette and Marius becomes a marriage; and Cosette learns of her foster father Valjean’s history as an escaped convict, as well as her own origins, reinforcing Hugo’s belief that love and compassion act as saviors for all human beings.
Metaphorically, the musical celebrates redemption and hope, the human belief in fighting for right and love. In interviews with those currently embroiled in such battles throughout the world, the same themes and motifs surface in their conversations; and that is another reason for seeing this 25th anniversary presentation of Hugo’s romantic epic.
Les Misérables has six more performances at Raleigh’s Progress Energy Center, tonight through Feb. 19th, with evening shows at 7:30 p.m. during the week and 2 p.m. matinees as well as 7:30 p.m. evening performances on Saturday and Sunday.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 12th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Tim Stevens: http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/02/12/1845053/les-miserables-gets-the-emotions.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Feb. 10th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/02/dream-the-dream-les-miserables-returns-to-raleigh-memorial-auditorium-on-feb-14-19/.)
Broadway Series South and the North Carolina present LES MISÉRABLES at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 16 and 17 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Feb. 18 and 19 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $60.25-$135.75 (including fees).
BOX OFFICE: Progress Energy Center Box Office: 919-996-8500 or firstname.lastname@example.org (information only).
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or http://www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/34216.
SHOW: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/event/lesmiserables-354 and http://www.nctheatre.com/shows/les-miserables.
VIDEO PREVIEWS: http://www.lesmis.com/gallery/videos/19.
STUDY GUIDE: http://www.lesmis.com/education/study-guide/.
Broadway Series South: http://www.progressenergycenter.com/broadway-series-south.
North Carolina Theatre: http://www.nctheatre.com/.
NCT BLOG: http://www.nctheatre.com/stage-notes.
NOTE: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh (http://www.artsaccessinc.org/) will audio describe the 2 p.m. Feb. 18th performance.
The Musical: http://www.lesmis.com/ (official website), http://www.lesmis.com/home_usa.php (U.S. Tour), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Misérables_(musical) (Wikipedia), and http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=5340 (Internet Broadway Database).
U.S. Tour Cast and Creatives: http://www.lesmis.com/cast-and-creatives/ (official web page).
Cameron Macintosh: http://www.cameronmackintosh.com/ (official website).
J. Mark McVey: http://www.jmarkmcvey.com/ (official website).
Andrew Varela: http://www.andrewvarela.com/ (official website).
Julie Benko: http://broadwayworld.com/people/Julie_Benko/ (BroadwayWorld.com).
Max Quinlan: http://www.maxquinlan.net/ (official website).
Betsy Morgan: http://broadwayworld.com/people/Betsy_Morgan/ (BroadwayWorld.com).
Chasten Harmon: http://broadwayworld.com/people/Chasten_Harmon/ (BroadwayWorld.com).
Richard Vida: http://broadwayworld.com/people/Richard_Vida/ (BroadwayWorld.com).
Shawna M. Hamic: http://www.shawnahamic.com/ (official website).
Jeremy Hays: http://broadwayworld.com/people/Jeremy_Hays/ (BroadwayWorld.com).
The 2012 Film of the Musical: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Misérables_(2012_film) (Wikipedia) and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707386/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Novel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Les_Misérables (Wikipedia).
The Novel (e-text): http://openlibrary.org/works/OL1063591W/Les_Miserables (Open Library at the Internet Archive).
Victor Hugo: http://www.gavroche.org/vhugo/ (Victor Hugo Central, compiled by John Newmark), http://www.victorhugo.gg/ (the States of Guernsey’s Official Victor Hugo website), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Hugo (Wikipedia).
The France of Victor Hugo: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/courses/rschwart/hist255/ (Robert Schwartz of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater reviews. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/.