Is there no sunlight in France?
This touring production of Les Misérables, presented by Mischer Neurosciences Broadway at the Hobby, attains an epic grandeur unrivaled in musical theater since the days of Florenz Ziegfeld and Billy Rose. It remains the best musical of the '80s and just might be the quintessential musical of the century until Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, but there's still not a sunbeam to be seen.
The blockbuster pop opera by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music), Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel (original French text), Herbert Kretzmer (English lyrics), along with the invaluable physical mise en scéne devised by original directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird (now fortified by directors Laurence Connor and James Powell), has been revised and remounted in countless international editions since its 1980 premiere at Paris' Palais des Sport. This gargantuan show, like the doorstop 1862 Victor Hugo novel from which it's been expertly adapted, erupts with grand emotions and elemental forces writ large: Selfless Love, Indomitable Courage, Utopian Commitment, Social Inequality, Venal Opportunism, Youthful Folly, Heavenly Redemption. It's as rich and affecting a theatrical experience as you could want, resplendently emotional and shamelessly manipulative. If you don't shed a tear or three somewhere during the show – and there are numerous opportunities to do so – you have no heart.
But the gloom is unrelenting in this version – Stygian and inky, definitely a day without sunshine.
There have been so many incarnations of this juggernaut (it's still playing in London, by the way, 33 years after its premiere, and the production shows no sign of fatigue), but the Hobby's show is based on the 2014 Broadway revival, the third time Les Mis played the Great White Way. Redesigned by Matt Kinley, it used Victor Hugo's own drawings for the projected backgrounds. This version is dark and smoky, like a smudged charcoal lithograph, yet the show has a bright momentum worthy of Foucault's pendulum.
Time hasn't dimmed the power of Les Miz. It grabs you from the fast-paced prologue and never lets go.
Prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), strains at the oars as galley slave in the bowels of a French warship with other convicts lamenting their abysmal fate. His sentence of 15 years hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread is bound to get your sympathy. The pillar of French civilization – the law – is painted as terribly skewed and unjust as the prisoners pray for death's reprieve. Paroled from hell, Valjean is ill-prepared for society. Mocked and abused as a perpetual criminal, he is absolved by a saintly churchman for his rash theft of silverware. He vows to start life anew. Hot on his heels is relentless policeman Javert (Josh Davis). Obsessed with bringing Valjean back to justice, he hounds him for decades. It's a perfect opening, cinematic, constantly on the move, enlarged with soaring, emotion-laden anthems that embody the mood of this ultra-romantic/ultra-earthy tale.
The authors have rewoven Hugo's thick tapestry into a veritable flying carpet of theater magic. The adventurous saga never loses momentum, always fleet of foot and immensely stirring.
We follow Valjean in his new persona as mayor and factory owner, where we meet unwed mother Fantine (Talia Simone Robinson filling in for Mary Kate Moore on opening night), who, when unfairly dismissed from her own slavish labor, falls quickly into prostitution. Savagely beaten by a pompous john, she is rescued by Valjean who promises to raise her child Cosette. Escaping Javert, Valjean discovers the child in the shabby inn of the shabby Thénardiers (J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn), history's ultimate survivors.
Years later, with striking visual assist from 3-D animated projections by Fifty-Nine Productions, we're in Paris where Valjean lives a solitary life with grownup Cosette (Olivia dei Cicchi filling in for an ailing Jillian Butler on opening night). The capital seethes with civil unrest as student Marius (Joshua Grosso), along with other young firebrands stirred by social injustice, take to the barricades in deadly civil protest. Marius has fallen in love with Cosette, but he's loved from afar by Thénardier's daughter Eponine (Paige Smallwood), a street-smart compatriot. The great clash upon the barricades is thrillingly staged, with Paule Constable's blazing lights pinning each victim in personal death ray.
Les Miz is an opera, don't forget. There's no spoken dialogue, everything is sung. Although the orchestrations can't compete with even a lesser work by Puccini or Verdi, it's still plenty hefty for a touring show and, under maestro Brian Eads, the compact orchestra pours out a satisfyingly lush sound. When the entire ensemble marches forward, plants its feet on the edge of the stage, and roars out the rousing "One Day More," the Hobby reverberates. I dare you not to be affected.
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Awash with a never-ending torrent of glorious melody, Schönberg's music stabs with poignancy, arouses with revolutionary fervor, and swoons with romantic longing. The songs delineate character: ethereal falsetto for Valjean's innate goodness; power ballads for the young lovers; vigorous martial anthems for the revolutionaries; Broadway pizzazz for the cartoony villains the Thénardiers. There are leitmotifs that lead our ear onward; snippets from one song that swell into the next which keep the score in perpetual motion. Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream," Valjean's haunting "Bring Him Home," Marius' "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" are deserved showstoppers.
What would an opera be without good singers? This Les Miz has superlative voices, besting even Broadway's original cast. For pure voice, Cartell's heavenly tenor ennobles Valjean's impassioned fervor and sanctity; Davis' baritone is robust and dusky as implacable Javert; Smallwood's purring belt tears into Eponine's "On My Own" and breaks our heart; Grosso's passionate tenor throbs with Marius' discovery of new-found love; and Matt Shingledecker's handsome Enjolras stirs us onto the barricades.
In the universal struggle of the hopeless and downtrodden, Les Misérables works like gangbusters. As a beacon of musical theater in all its grandeur, this superb production with knockout showbiz know-how illuminates the human condition. Maybe love, forgiveness, and mercy are all the sunbeams we need.
Les Misérables continues at. 7:30 pm Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday; and 2 p.m. Sunday through September 30 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org. $35-$180.