Every decade or so there is a show that captivates audiences through the magic of storytelling and with spellbinding music. These shows are not just productions that go on to have multiple revivals and cast recordings but also ones that are translated into various languages, continuously break box office records and gather legions of fans whenever it makes a stop in their town. These shows are cultural phenomenons and for the third time I witnessed the pure genius that is Les Misérables.
This show has been seen by more than 70 million people across 44 countries in 22 different languages. Just speaking its name rumbles up various opinions of everyone's favorite cast recording, specific actor and of course the age old question of whether the movie is better. Let me just nip the last in the bud because while I’ve seen this show now three times, I continuously am reminded how incredible it is seeing it live. Cast recordings, boot leg performances online and movies do not do it justice.
For those who don’t know what Les Misérables is about, it takes place in 19th-century France and is based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the same name. Prisoner for nineteen years, Jean Valjean is released from prison after stealing a loaf of bread for his ailing sisters child. After meeting a bishop who believes Valjean to be a kind man, Valjean re establishes himself as a mayor and factory owner of a small town. While he has broken his parole, the cunning and determined Javert vows to bring him back to prison for his crimes. While living in the town, Valjean saves a young woman named Fantine who tries to work to survive and provide for her daughter Cosette who lives with an Innkeeper and his wife in another town. Fantine is quite ill and passes but not before Valjean promises to find Cosette and take care of her.
Eight years later, Valjean is disguised again now posing as Cosette’s father. A young student by the name of Marius falls for Cosette after seeing her in the market one day. While their love is strong, the question remains of if it’ll be strong enough to survive the looming post-French revolution war along with Javert’s tireless hunting for justice.
Les Misérables is an incredible show for a multitude of reasons. As a performer, it’s incredibly intense due to the fact that it’s a sung-through musical, meaning the entire thing is singing like Rent or Evita. That being said to be cast in this show one needs not only an incredible voice but tone, control and breath support. The entire cast does this effortlessly. When I wrote earlier that listening to a recording does not do it justice, I meant it. Throughout the entire performance I consistently forgot how much I loved this show specifically for the music. The writing of the music along with the fact that it’s sung-through just brings a different energy and emotion than what audiences are normally treated to with any other musical.
There is not one single weak link in this cast. From each lead, to every supporting and individual ensemble member they are unstoppable and bring life to this incredible story. This show is a huge cast which is why I am only able to highlight a few actors performances but I guarantee you that you’ll be blown away by each of their performances. Nick Cartell plays Jean Valjean and is undeniably the best one out of all the productions I’ve seen. He was incredibly versatile with his high belt but also tender voice during songs like “Bring Him Home.” Josh Davis plays Javert and is honest and true with his devotion to justice. His singing voice was beyond impressive with a deep rich tone.
Mary Kate Moore plays the beautiful Fantine and what makes her performance so incredible is how quickly we feel for her while also having minimal stage time. The role is not on stage for very long and yet she is able to draw every single audience member into her story, her pain, her doubt and her struggle. Do I even need to mention how stunning her voice was during “I Dreamed a Dream” because I was in tears. No actor drew bigger laughs on opening night than Allison Guinn who played Madame Thénardier. As she returned again and again the laughs grew bigger and bigger. While the character itself is pretty awful, she still managed to keep spirits up with what is considered a rather depressing show a majority of the time.
Despite the show taking place so long ago it’s outstanding to see some of the themes still so relevant today. Valjean was imprisoned for nearly 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Unjust punishments for petty crimes are still happening today. With mass incarceration back then, many of these prisoners were forced into hard labor and they essentially made a profit. Sound familiar? That’s because it’s still going on today. The top 1% is still receiving so much while the rest of the population receives so little. As the battle continues, this message still is relevant in the show while mirroring the real world.
With a spot on and impeccable set accompanied by a beyond thrilling cast, this new production of Les Misérables is an elevated experience of what a musical can be. The story will forever be told and known for it’s beautifully written score along with incredible story. This is certainly not the last we’ve seen of Les Misérables.
Les Misérables plays at the Orpheum Theatre through Hennepin Theatre Trust now through December 30.