How do you turn one of the longest novels ever written into one of the most popular musicals of all time? With a wide scope, a lot of sentimentality and a score full of memorable music.
At least that’s what worked in the case of "Les Misérables," the musical adaptation of writer Victor Hugo's 1862 novel of the same name. Originally produced in Paris in 1980, the sung-through musical (meaning that there is no dialogue, only singing) was created by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and writers Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. The breakthrough production of the show, though, came when producer Cameron Mackintosh staged it on London's West End in 1985 — with new English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer — a production that ran until this past June, making it the second-longest-running musical in the world (after the original Off-Broadway run of "The Fantasticks”).
Despite tepid reviews, the show quickly gained a cult following that translated into a box office blockbuster and led to a Broadway production that ran for 16 years, plus multiple revivals and tours. The latest of those tours is currently in Austin, playing through Sept. 15 at Bass Concert Hall courtesy of Broadway in Austin and Texas Performing Arts. It's a dynamic, kinetic production that is sure to please both longtime fans of the show and those seeing it for the first time.
The story of “Les Misérables” follows the life of a released French prisoner named Jean Valjean over the course of two decades, as he attempts to stay ahead of the police inspector dedicated to bringing him in for breaking his parole. Along the way, Valjean’s life intertwines with that of a girl he takes in as his adopted daughter, and later with the man she loves and his revolutionary schoolboy friends.
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The epic scope of this tale, taking place in dozens of different locations over the course of the show’s three hours, requires a versatile production. Famously, director Trevor Nunn in the original West End and Broadway productions used a mechanical turntable that allowed for an easy flow between scenes. For this new mounting, though, co-directors Laurence Connor and James Powell and their design team have eschewed that concept and instead use clever entrances, quick-moving set pieces, a great deal of haze and a subtly utilized rear projection screen to keep the show moving at the quick pace it demands. The scope thus remains just as big, but with greater creativity involved in setting each individual scene.
This job is made easier by a talented cast that commands the eyes (as well as the ears) of the audience, allowing for some scene-changing sleight of hand to occur in the background. Leading off that cast is Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean, mixing together a rich voice of remarkable range with a sense of looming, hulking physicality that radiates Valjean’s vaunted strength. As his foil, Inspector Javert, Josh Davis evinces a calm demeanor of careful control that slowly disintegrates over the course of the play, creating a psychologically tormented Javert who transcends the mustache-twirling villainy of some portrayals.
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, Jimmy Smagula and Allison Guinn as the Thénardiers — a venal, greedy, scheming couple whose lives keep intersecting with Valjean’s — bring both whimsy and comic relief into what is otherwise a very serious story. The pair combine vaudevillian vulgarity with a winking self-awareness that fascinates even as it repels, and as a result they serve as a memorable highlight of the production.
Unlike other big shows of the era in which it was first produced, the story and music of "Les Misérables" both hold up today (even if the characters sometimes seem a little flat, perhaps a necessary evil of condensing such a massive book into three hours), and this new touring production shows exactly why it remains a favorite of so many musical theater fanatics.
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