It takes tremendous finesse and talent for a show about the bottom barrel of misery and tragedy to bring you joy and hope. And that is exactly what the entire cast and directing team of touring ‘Les Misérables’ accomplished on opening night at The Bushnell in Hartford on Tuesday night.
From the intricately detailed set to the physicality and vocal stamina of the performers, ‘Les Mis’ was awe-striking and captivating at every turn in telling a love story amid the tale of the fight for justice and mere survival during a time of revolution and socio-economic struggles in early-1800s France.
The artistic design team took a very cinematic approach to this production, utilizing projection, video, and motion graphic elements to enhance the look, projecting the title and author Victor Hugo’s name on the backdrop screen at the beginning like the opening credits to a movie. The roaring crescendo of a dynamic orchestra and powerful chorus drew us in as we saw prisoners rowing a boat through a scrim that projected video images of splashing water adding an element of realism.
The technology of the projections also served to show movement and travel as Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) carries an injured Marius (Joshua Grosso) through the bowels of Paris in the sewer tunnels.
The projections also play a vital role in Javert’s (Josh Davis) epic jump and fall from a bridge. Usually during this iconic suicide scene, it usually seems like a cop out when the bridge isn’t high and the actor doesn’t actually jump. It loses the magnitude and impact. I even saw an actor simply step off into the wing in a high school production, not making it clear Javert died, perhaps to escape the subject of suicide. So when I saw Davis on a bridge at floor level, I was ready to be disappointed and see him simply crouch or step behind the bridge only to melt into darkness and vanish thanks to lighting-created illusion.
But the staging of this scene turned out to be captivating. The team utilized a technique I’ve seen in the movie, “The Omen,” manipulating perspective of horizontal movement to look like a vertical fall. Davis, standing on the bridge railing, flailed his arms as the set piece moved backward into darkness to take him further away as we saw video scenery behind him emulating the moving abyss he was falling into. That made it look like a realistic fall and compensated for not positioning the bridge at a high location.
The physical set was gorgeous, with several pieces smoothly maneuvered on and off stage for scene changes. In each scene, the stage transformed into believable villages or the city of Paris. The most striking sets were probably the ornate gate outside the hideaway, quiet home of Jean Valjean and Cosette (Jillian Butler) and the furniture-stacked, tall barricades protecting the French revolutionaries.
The battle scene at the barricades was so realistic it was a little frightening. With all the flashes and gunshot sound effects, it was slightly anxiety-inducing given the recent shooting massacre in Las Vegas.
But it wasn’t just the set that was so important in telling a story of this magnitude. The leads and the ensemble carried the storyline well on their own with their sound, energy, acting, and movements.
Cartell (Valjean) is a vocal powerhouse whose voice matches his brute physicality in his opening “Soliloquy.” He shows great control over his voice, demonstrating strength even when his sings softer and quiet prayer song “Bring Him Home” at the barricades. Davis matches him with a booming voice. Melissa Mitchell gives us an emotionally sweet soprano melody in “I Dreamed A Dream.” Even though she was slightly off-pitch at times, it didn’t detract from the number. Butler was an absolute songbird as “Cosette” hitting the high note in “A Heart Full of Love” without flinching. Joshua Grosso (Marius) and Phoenix Best (Eponine) blended nicely with her.
Grosso’s Marius was playfully and adorably dorky in his first attempt to win Cosette’s love. While he paired nicely with Mitchell, I was actually more drawn to his chemistry with Best. Their kiss right before Eponine dies was a nice touch that isn’t part of most productions I’ve seen given that she suffers from her unrequited love for Marius the whole show. It was a beautiful tribute to their friendship and how he cares for her immensely even if it’s platonic. Her emotional “On My Own” brought tears to my eyes and I related with her spunky yet sensitive character the most.
Even though I despised her parents, the Thernardiers, they were amusing villains that won the audience over despite their transgressions. J Anthony Crane was able to be both sinister and an affable fool as Thernardier and he was well-paired with Allison Guinn (Madame Thernardier) as his loathing, yet adoring, wife. Guinn had such grit to her operatic voice that personified her character. The dynamic comic duo got a lot of laughs because of their physical comedy, particularly Guinn when Madame Thernardier tries to seduce an uninterested Jean Valjean by perking up her – body. They brought down the house in “Master of the House.” Their re-entry in the wedding sequence drew even more laughter as platters fell out of her robust gown.
The children in this production are just as phenomenal as the adults. Zoe Glick and Sophie Knapp trade off playing young Eponine and Cosette in this run and are adorable. Jordan Cole and Julian Emile Lerner alternate as Gavroche. The Gavroche we got on Tuesday night was precious, fierce, and sassy, even flipping the bird at Javert. He really showed what little people can do. He brings honesty and innocence to the narrative, facing the same circumstances the adults do with bravery.
Intertwining separate storylines create a larger story about humanity, the misery people endure, and how they fight through it for a greater cause. Hugo’s story also incorporates large character arches, transformation, and role-reversing circumstances.
Javert, an officer of the law who is very by the books, releases Jean Valjean out of prison, branded with a number for stealing a loaf of bread to save his sister’s child and a condemning paper identifying him by his crime. So he finds himself in another prison of judgement that prevents him from turning his life around as people define him as bad and a criminal. He gets into fights defending his character and is pretty beat up in the process. Ironically there is no punishment for the people who are cruel and violent toward him and regard themselves as better than him. They, like Javert, have no compassion for his circumstances as a nice man trying to save a child’s life. The law is the law.
When all hope seems lost, the Bishop of Digne (Robert Ariza/Nicholas Edwards) shows him kindness and takes him in, but he steals from him. When a crowd and police try to make him answer for another crime, potentially sending him back to prison, the bishop vouches for him and gives him the church’s silver to make himself an honest man. He becomes a wealthy, well-respected upper class citizen who can do no wrong. That is, until Javert discovers his identity and makes it his life’s mission to put the fugitive back in prison where he believe he belongs.
Fantine (Melissa Mitchell) is also a victim of circumstance and prejudice when she is cast into a life of poverty and prostitution after petty women make her out to be a slut when they find out she is a single mother paying innkeepers to raise her daughter. Never mind the fact that her child’s father abandoned them. Her boss fires her. It’s Jean Valjean’s factory and he does nothing to help. She has to sell all her belongings, even her hair, the ultimate symbol of innocence being violated in literature. When she refuses to bed a captain and has to fight him off as he abuses her, he feigns being the victim and accuses her of attacking him. Javert, who destains criminals and takes a high-ranking official’s word over a prostitute’s, believes him and wants to take her in. It’s not right, but that shows the double standard in the society of the play. The real victims are the criminals and the real villains are people like Javert who do nothing to help and perpetuate the injustice.
Jean Valjean empathizes with Fantine, learning it’s the events at his factory that put her in this position, and stops Javert from locking her away so she can seek medical treatment. But to no avail, she dies. He makes it his life’s mission to care for her child, Cosette, who we see mistreated by Thenardier (J Anthony Crane), Madame Thenardier (Allison Guinn), Young Eponine.
The Thenardiers serve as the comic relief in this tragedy, and we certainly need it to balance out the heavy material. But they are also cruel, self-serving swindlers who aren’t to be trusted. After Jean Valjean rescues Cosette from them, their finances plummet. As Cosette rises in status, Eponine falls into poverty, trading in an elegant dress for rags, essentially swapping circumstances with Cosette. But the difference between her and her parents is that their characters never change, but she becomes a likeable protagonist who stands up against her father and selflessly helps Marius even though it brings her heartbreak.
As Gavroche, a little boy fighting with the revolutionaries, when people die they are all equals. Their status in life no longer matters. Both good and bad people die. And as the Thernardiers point out after the battle, they survive despite being awful humans.
That is the irony that drives Javert to his breaking point. While he chases Jean Valjean and considers him evil, he learns his perceptions were completely wrong. Valjean shows him mercy many times when he can kill him and rescues him when the revolutionaries take him captive. It turns his world upside-down and when he can’t bring Valjean to justice in the only way he knows how, he can’t make sense of the world anymore and takes his own life instead.
The play overturns systematic injustice and prejudice in a way that is relevant to the surfacing social and racial tension we are experiencing in our country today. ‘Les Mis’ teaches us that things aren’t always as they seem and that right and wrong should be subject to circumstances. It challenges convention.
“Les Mis” isn’t just a story about the individual. It’s about unifying to battle our demons and the strength that lies with the people. There are many powerful choruses from the prologue to “The People’s Song” and “One Day More.”
While almost everyone dies in this show, we see the dead as a group at the end of the show for the finale. They gather as a crowd behind the newlyweds – Marius and Cosette. Yes, there is even a wedding in all of this misery. But they died for a greater cause trying to make things better for future generations. The wedding represents union and a new life. The fact that all the dead are standing behind them shows how they symbolically died for them and support them. This happy ending for the couple amid so much sorrow and terrible endings for others represents that even in the darkest of times there is a glimmer of hope and light.
Luckily for you the production runs for more than “One Day More.” “Les Mis” will be at The Bushnell for four days more, ending Oct. 8. More information on the production and tickets is available at bushnell.org.