“Les Miserables” at Overture: Some Little Misses, Then Big Hits

A packed house ignores the snow and quickly heats up the hall

 

Les Miserables might as easily describe the weather we endured on the night of April 3, but it didn’t keep local fans of the iconic Broadway show from packing Overture Hall and rocking the house when it was all over.

This latest installment in the Broadway at Overture series is the touring version of the latest production, by Cameron Mackintosh, that wowed New York audiences for over 1,000 performances beginning in 2014. The groundwork was laid in 2009 in preparation for the 1985 original’s 25th anniversary. One of the aspects promoted extensively in the press materials is that the sets were inspired by paintings of Victor Hugo (the author of the original novel).

And therein lay the first problem with an opening act that started promptly at 7:30 and ended 92 minutes later: If these sets were actual representations of Hugo’s brushwork, then clearly his palette was dominated by browns and black…the production is dark, almost without regard for indoor/outdoor settings, or whether something might have occurred in daylight.

Okay, so the story of the persecuted Jean Valjean, who has just served a 19-year sentence on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread (essentially) is a dark one. But there was another problem that plagued much of the first act as well; the instrumental ensemble (about 13 players on orchestral instruments with a couple of keyboards), is amplified greatly, as is usual with musical theater these past several decades. And the singers’ mics are also quite hot, so that when the orchestra is loud (which is often), you can hear singing over it, but the general effect is to detract from diction and certainly any sense of balance. Perhaps the most egregious sequence came in “Master of the House.” J. Anthony Crane eats the role up, but with a raspy quality to his voice, amplified, the raucous volume of he, his stage wife and chorus of inn patrons leaves the number bereft of its sly-winking humor.

Now for the good news: the principals are very good, quite moving in fact when given the room to be expressive in a widely modulated dynamic range, and Act II consistently builds in emotion; the end result is a musical and dramatic conclusion that virtually demands the standing ovation the opening night audience delivered.

Specifically, there is some beautifully memorable singing from the adult Eponine (Emily Bautista), and Fantine (Mary Kate Moore) in their respective death scenes. Jillian Butler as Cosette doesn’t get quite the same opportunities until late in the show, but her love-at-first-sight Marius (Robert Ariza) displays a large dynamic and expressive range of the principal characters. Josh Davis as Javert, the rigidly righteous detective who unexpectedly displays massive compassion to his lifelong nemesis, Valjean (pictured above left, with Nick Cartell as Valjean; photo courtesy of Matthew Murphy), carries the dramatic part of the role convincingly; but as most of his singing eschews soft dynamics, we don’t experience as full an artistic range.

But we certainly end up getting the whole package with the Valjean of Nick Cartell. By the time he gets to the heartfelt prayer, “Bring Him Home,” the audience was hear-a-pin-drop silent. That same poignancy was matched, and added to by Moore, Bautista, Ariza and Butler in his death scene.

I was especially interested to see this new production because I had fallen under the show’s spell twice, in reviewing touring productions in the 1990s in the Los Angeles area. Truth be told, I don’t recall many salient details of those reviews, just the lingering memory of how moving the show was as a whole. And that, despite my criticisms at the top of this review, was what we got Tuesday night in Overture Hall. One of the hottest tickets of this season of Broadway at Overture just got hotter (even if the weather hasn’t). There are six performances left between now and Sunday, April 8. I suggest you fight for your ticket just as hard as the rebels did at the barricade in Act II. After all, a bunch of people Tuesday night would probably tell you it’s a show “to die for.”

 

 

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4 thoughts on ““Les Miserables” at Overture: Some Little Misses, Then Big Hits

  1. I saw this touring production in November in Greenville and I had a bit of a different cast but with some of the same cast members. Nick Cartell was wonderful as Valjean and his “Bring Him Home” was so soulful and quiet and strong enough for what the song required. Josh Davis while having the right voice and a fine “Stars”, I felt like something was lacking: I am someone who just has a hard time finding common ground with Javert and I don’t know why. The rest of my cast was Melissa Mitchell as Fantine, Jillian Butler as Cosette, Joshua Grosso as Marius, Talia Simone Robinson (understudy), Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn as the Thenardiers and Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras so a bit different.

    Actually if you go to my blog and look for November 6th last year, you will find a review of when I saw Les Mis. It would take too long on this comment to talk about my entire cast.

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    1. Thanks for this! As much as I love Broadway, it’s not my expertise as a critic, so I really appreciate all the feedback I can get! I will go to your review in the next few days. Blessings!

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    2. Not sure if my last reply went through, but did want to let you know I didn’t procrastinate–went straight to your site and the Nov. 6 post. Now when I’ll have time I’ll look at some more! I tend to agree with you about “Hamilton,” but as a regular critic in Madison, I’ll probably cover it.

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  2. Thanks for a very helpful review – and regarding the problems of over-amplification, that’s often out of control. We also have such problems in local productions, e.g. at the Middleton PAC.

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