Iconic musical’s power emerges despite shadowy challenges

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The cast of Les Miserables asks for “One Day More.” (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

It’s when the latest incarnation of Les Misérables nears the halfway point that it begins hitting its stride. It’s then that we’re introduced to a group of young revolutionaries whose faith in their cause adds new layers of tragedy and nobility to the tale. The production builds from there to a climax that is just as glorious and moving as it was meant to be.

In the early scenes, however, this telling of fugitive Jean Valjean’s struggles has quirks that limit its effectiveness. Based on a 2014 Broadway revival and directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, the touring production incorporates scenery based on paintings by the tale’s original author, Victor Hugo. But it also employs a lighting design (by Paule Constable) so dark that it’s hard enough to see the actors, let alone the scenery behind them.

This is not so much a problem for those of us who’ve seen the musical multiple times, but it might discourage first-time viewers. Particularly during the fast-paced first act, they could well struggle to keep up as the story races from one dramatic development to the next.

For those who aren’t familiar with the tale, Les Miz takes place in 19th-century France and centers on Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for 19 years simply because he stole a loaf of bread. Released on parole as the show opens, he struggles against his own bitterness—as well as the suspicion that greets a former convict—until a clergyman’s generosity allows him to reinvent himself. He then pledges himself to a life of helping others, but he’s forever dogged by a police official named Javert who’s determined to bring him to justice for breaking parole.

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Nick Cartell (right) as Jean Valjean and Josh Davis as his nemesis, Javert

Drenched in pathos and death, the Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg blockbuster is admittedly melodramatic, but it succeeds on the strength of the achingly beautiful songs penned by composer Schonberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. That is, it succeeds when the cast does the songs justice.

What bothers me more than the current production’s dark lighting is that male leads Nick Cartell (Jean Valjean) and Josh Davis (Javert) sometimes make the melodies subservient to the drama—that is, they shout rather than sing the words. It’s an ill-advised technique that means we get only approximations of some of the most gorgeous songs in the musical-theater canon.

Fortunately, both actors have strong moments when they skip the shouting. Cartell displays his fine voice on the falsetto showcase “Bring Him Home” and makes Valjean an increasingly sympathetic figure as the show progresses. As for Davis, he has a limited voice that keeps him from being one of the all-time great Javerts, but he turns the Act I solo “Stars” into a near-showstopper on the force of will alone.

There are parts of the musical that are guaranteed some degree of success no matter how well they’re staged: the plight of single mom Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), say, or the comic antics of those conniving innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and Jimmy Smagula). It’s when the plot hops several years into the future and introduces new characters such as the aforementioned student revolutionaries that Les Miz sometimes struggles to regain its footing.

Luckily, that’s exactly when the touring production comes into its own.

From this point, the scenery of Matt Kinley begins emerging from the shadows: a silhouetted barricade, a sewer system that appears to arise magically from the stage. The former is the setting for a legitimately horrific battle, complete with the sounds of musket fire and whistling bullets, as the young rebels take a stand against repression.

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Enjolras (Matt Shingledecker) entreats his fellow malcontents to rebel against the government.

The characters introduced at this time are all brought vividly to life by accomplished actors: Brett Stoelker (filling in for Matt Shingledecker on opening night) as rebel leader Enjolras; Phoenix Best as the Thenardiers’ lovestruck daughter, Eponine; Robbie Crandell and Jasper Davenport alternating in the role of plucky street urchin Gavroche. Among the strongest are Jillian Butler as Valjean’s orphaned ward, Cosette; and Joshua Grosso as Marius, the rebel who falls for her. Their sweet voices and sincere delivery make us believe in love at first sight.

Hope in the power of love despite overwhelming adversity: That’s the final message of Les Misérables, and it still comes through as clearly as ever.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Les Misérables Nov. 19-24 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $79-$150+ (regular or verified resale). 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Heartfelt performances, fine vocals mark revival of ‘Les Miserables’

Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)
Jean Valjean (Bill Hafner, left) risks being recognized by Javert (Scott Green, center) when he intercedes on behalf of Fantine (Melissa Muguruza), who’s being detained by two local constables (Derryck Menard and Emerson Elias) in this scene from Les Miserables (photo by Jerri Shafer)

By Richard Ades

As the familiar opening strains of Les Miserables filled the air, I held my breath. Having seen the blockbuster musical at least four times (including the 2012 movie), I knew how much depended on the actor playing Jean Valjean.

Would he have a voice powerful enough to carry off the demanding part? Would he have enough acting chops to make us care about the put-upon French fugitive?

But as soon as Bill Hafner sang Valjean’s first few notes, I began to relax. Hafner not only has an exceptional voice, but he’s able to project the combination of nobility and humility that makes Valjean such an appealing hero.

And Hafner is far from the only talent who’s up to the Les Miz challenge. Director David R. Bahgat and his cast and crew have created something remarkable on the JCC stage. Every performance, every lighting effect, every costume contributes to an experience that builds to one emotional climax after another.

Set in the early 19th century, the Claude Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil/Jeffrey Hatcher musical focuses on Valjean’s attempt to remake and redeem himself after serving years at hard labor for the petty crime of stealing a loaf of bread. When he unknowingly contributes to the downfall of a single mother named Fantine, he takes on a new responsibility as the guardian of her young daughter, Cosette.

Meanwhile, he’s constantly forced to be on the lookout for Javert, a police officer who’s determined to bring him to justice for violating his parole. But that doesn’t stop him from becoming entangled with young idealists who are determined to launch a revolution.

Besides Hafner, many cast members give affecting performances in this sung-through musical. They include:

• Melissa Muguruza as Fantine
• Violet Hicks (alternating with Sigal Judd) as her young daughter, Cosette
• Amy Rittberger as the grown Cosette
• Madeline Bolzenius as the lovelorn Eponine

Eponine’s disreputable parents, the Thenardiers, are deliciously played by Mark Schuliger and Mary Sink. Their appearances, especially the rousing number Master of the House, give the tragedy-prone musical a few welcome moments of comic relief.

Moments of romantic relief arise after the grown Cosette falls for young revolutionary Marius (Elisha Beachy), leading to such beautiful ballads as A Heart Full of Love. But this subplot, too, has a tragic element, as it dooms Eponine’s own feelings for Marius, as expressed in her heart-rending lament On My Own.

Marius’s fellow revolutionaries include leader Enjolras (Jay Rittberger) and a plucky street urchin named Gavroche (Yaakov Newman). Their anthems, including Do You Hear the People Sing?, are as glorious as ever, but they take on a touching note of pathos in this production. That’s because the performances and even director Bahgat’s costume designs suggest that Enjolras and his followers are really just idealistic “schoolboys,” as Javert derisively calls them.

As for Javert, Scott Green plays him with the ramrod posture of a man who’s unable to see beyond his narrow interpretation of right and wrong. Green mostly meets the role’s vocal needs, but his voice occasionally showed signs of strain at the matinee I attended.

Les Miz fans know that Javert’s final exit is a challenge for a semiprofessional troupe like Gallery Players. Fortunately, Bahgat handles it with creativity and dramatic flair—qualities that mark the entire production.

As I said in the beginning, much rides on Jean Valjean’s broad shoulders, and actor Hafner never disappoints. His rendition of the difficult Act 2 solo Bring Him Home is simply the highpoint of a triumphant lead performance.

But there is so much else that contributes to the show’s success, including Jon Baggs’s scenery and Jarod Wilson’s light and sound design.

Yes, there are minor problems: the odd sour note from the band, a few voices that are under-amplified. None of these detract from the show’s ability to pull us into a musical that retains its ability to move us even after multiple viewings.

At its best, Les Miserables is a mesmerizing experience. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, this is Les Miserables at its best.

Gallery Players will present Les Miserables through March 29 at the Jewish Community Center, 1125 College Ave., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25 ($20 JCC members), $20 ages 60-plus ($18 JCC members), $15 students and children. 614-231-2731 or www.jccgalleryplayers.org.