Ah, Les Mis.
French novelist Victor Hugo’s seminal 19th century work–turned-Broadway-music-institution-turned blockbuster movie.
This week, it returned to Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts in its secondary form, for its regional tour away from Broadway. Such a production has to answer the difficult test of how to bring new life to something that has been done so many times that each new iteration could potentially do it to death.
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This production of the musical that chronicles thief-turned-hero Jean Valjean’s redemption — directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell — was not that time. Though it’s stellar soundtrack and universal themes of love, repentance and redemption always earn automatic brownie points, there were a few aspects of this production that merited its place amongst the many times this musical has been produced.
The first was the conviction each cast member brought to their roles. “Les Mis” is not a low-key musical, for those unfamiliar. The plot, spanning decades, moves at a breakneck pace as Jean Valjean and a score of characters navigate the perils of pre-, mid- and immediately post-civil war France. There’s a lot of death and a lot of love.
Each word and each note carries the essence of each character wholly. My personal favorites were Nick Cartell’s Valjean, the pair of J. Anthony Crane and Alison Guinn as the scheming and comedic Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, as well as the kid actors who played Cosette, Eponine and Gavroche (Elsa Avery Dees, Sophie Knapp, and Jonah Mussolino respectively).
Second, the set design was top notch. In this production, the towering set design by Matt Kinley was designed based on Hugo’s own paintings. Given the larger-than-life nature of the acting and producing, these hyper-realistic and expressive set designs served to ground the production and provide an immersive and beautiful effect in of themselves.
Lastly, in these tumultuous times, when conventional knowledge seems to be failing, the messages and themes of “Les Mis” take on new importance.
Valjean’s struggle to redeem himself and be honest, the police officer Inspector Javert’s (Josh Davis) inability to see the nuance of morality and Marius’ (Robert Ariza) choice between his life or his morals, all resonated heavily given the absurd, oft-changing world that exists today.
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And the women of the play shined. Fantine (Mary Kate Moore) striving to provide for her child, despite all the abuse she faces at the hands of the world and the men that inhabit it, was inspiring, and heart-breaking when she fell just short. And older Eponine (Emily Bautista) is a proper badass who honestly could have done much better than Marius, to be honest.
“Les Mis” will always be great, but this production because of its own strengths and the time in which it is being made takes on new importance and new life.