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REVIEW: The Memorable Return of Les Miserables (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

The cast of the national touring company of Les Miserables takes to the barricades. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In 1832 in Paris, at a time of growing inequality, the funeral procession for a popular public figure led to an eruption of violence. Hundreds died fighting at makeshift barricades with stolen weapons. A young writer, Victor Hugo, was present, but was not part of the insurgency. Thirty years later, he wrote Les Misérables, one of the longest novels in history (1,900 pages in the original French), centered on that brief uprising. Some 125 years after that, a musical based on the novel opened as a musical on Broadway, and had an amazing run of 6,680 performances – the 5th longest in Broadway history, with another 1,024 performances during a 2014 revival. The show has gone on to play in 45 countries to audiences totaling over 70 million.

The main plot of Les Mis, as the musical is affectionately known, follows the sufferings and sacrifices of various among Paris’s wretched. First and foremost is Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), an ex-con, whose original crime was stealing bread so that his family would not starve. Others include Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), a young woman driven to prostitution to support her daughter; that daughter, Cosette (Madeleine Guilbot and Vivi Howard as a young girl, then Jillian Butler); Marius (Joshua Grosso), a student who falls in love with Cosette; and Éponine (Paige Smallwood), whose love for Marius is unrequited. The villain is Inspector Javert (Josh Davis), who is obsessed with capturing Jean Valjean after the latter breaks his parole. Additionally, part villain and part jester is the sometime-landlord of a bar and general troublemaker, Thénadier (J. Anthony Crane), abetted by his wife (Allison Guinn).

Mary Kate Moore as Fantine in the Les Miserables national tour. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Traditional book musicals involve dialogue and action, punctuated by actors breaking out into song. Les Misérables is closer to opera, in that every word in the performance is sung – and the singers on this tour are first-rate. All the leads sing with great power and pure tones, with Cartell as Jean Valjean as primus inter pares for his great range and the variety of emotions expressed. Les Misérables succeeds because of its singers and their songs – memorable works that cross a wide range of tones.

How many memorable songs? There is Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”, known to even those who have not seen the musical, due to the viral Internet sensation of Susan Boyle’s 2009 performance on the show Britain’s Got Talent. There is the raunchy “Lovely Ladies”, the comic relief of Thénardier’s “Master of the House”, the lament of the downtrodden “At the End of the Day”, the melancholy ode to friendship by the doomed insurgents “Drink with Me to Days Gone By”, the anthem, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”, Éponine’s sad lament “On My Own”, and Valjean’s pleading “Bring Him Home”. There are sevearl scenes where the actors are singing different songs simultaneously, but it all somehow works. And motifs from early songs appear in later numbers, helping to tie the narratives together.

Nick Cartell gives a memorable performance as Jean Valjean. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The set design by Matt Kinley is mostly minimalist: a bed and curtain make a hospital, a handful of tables make a bar, a series of long oars make a ship, and so on. The actors sometimes interact on an entirely bare stage. The minimal approach works in large part because they are often supplemented by brilliant projections designed by Kinley and realized Fifty-Nine Productions. This is most evident in scenes where the plot involves characters moving through the sewers of Paris, or a character jumping from a bridge.

Les Misérables is back in town for two weeks only. The holiday season accentuates the spiritual aspects of the plot (with religious imagery especially highlighted in this production): of suffering, sacrifice, and redemption. There is also, of course, resonance with the general climate: great inequality, what we owe the less fortunate, second chances, and the divergence between what is lawful and what is just. Or one can just sit back and enjoy the amazing singing.

Les Misérables plays through Dec. 30 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN.

Brian Bix