IOWA CITY — If you think you’ve seen “Les Miserables,” think again.
I’ve seen the musical multiple times, and yet, so much of the national tour’s opening night Tuesday at Hancher Auditorium felt completely new.
Emerging from the shadows of the award-winning 1987 Broadway production is a re-imagining of scenery and staging that breathes new life into Victor Hugo’s 1862 heart-wrenching journey through crime, hope, love and redemption. So many scenes take on a heightened level of intimacy — even in the large, group setting.
The most notable changes are in the scenery and lighting designs, pumped full of drama and darkness pierced by shafts of light. All of the action lurks in the shadows, echoing the lives unfolding onstage and in Hugo’s paintings incorporated in the design.
The story that’s told through searing song remains the same, beginning with Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his starving nephew. He is released 19 years later, destined to live on the fringes of society as an outcast, turned away from jobs and lodging because of his parolee status. In desperation, he steals from the bishop who showed him mercy with food and lodging. Caught by the townspeople with stolen silver household wares in his bag, the bishop gives him an additional pair of candlesticks and frees him with the charge to live a godly life.
Valjean tears up his parole papers, retreats into the shadows and emerges successful in every venture, from owning a factory to becoming a mayor.
Valjean’s many acts of kindness — including rescuing and raising Cosette, the daughter of his dying former employee Fantine — set him on a path for redemption. But he is dogged at every turn by Inspector Javert (Josh Davis), whose life mission is to return Valjean to prison.
Cartell embodies Valjean with a voice as layered and rich as the character. His every moment onstage shines with equal parts strength and subtle nuances. His finest moment is “Bring Him Home,” sung with quiet control as his daughter’s new beau, Marius (Joshua Grosso), sleeps between battles in the Paris student uprising of 1832. It’s the most beautiful prayer ever written for the stage.
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Davis thunders his way through the role of Javert, seemingly heartless and evil, but gripped, instead, in a madness to right what he sees as a terrible wrong. The quest consumes his being, his emotions flung into the night sky during “Stars” as he sings: “Those who follow the path of the righteous shall have their reward.” And on through his final “Soliloquy,” when he can no longer live with his pain. This climactic scene retains the jaw-dropping effects from the original staging, enhanced with scenic projections as he’s swallowed by darkness.
A signature scenery piece has been completely revamped. Paris is in an upheaval over the impending death of the only official who championed the poor. As the students prepare to lead an uprising, they pile up everything they can find to form a barricade from which they can fire on the advancing army.
Built on a turntable, the barricade in the musical’s original staging was astounding when it debuted. I thought I would miss that special effect, but I actually like the new setup equally well, if not better, because of the intimate staging and striking shafts of light employed during the gunfight.
In a story that plays out over nearly three hours of intense drama propelling Fantine’s soul-crushing despair sung with haunting angst by Mary Kate Moore in “I Dreamed a Dream,” and the students’ call to action in “Do You Hear the People Sing?” (now listed as “The People’s Song”) and “One Day More.”
Paige Smallwood brings vulnerability to Eponine, the street-tough young woman in love with Marius, who sees her as a trusted friend. As she watches Marius fall under Cosette’s spell, Smallwood’s huge voice sends Eponine’s heartache to the stratosphere with “On My Own.”
Jillian Butler brings beauty, grace and a touch of defiance to Cosette. The delicate clarity of her highest notes shimmer in the air.
With all the big voices onstage, the blend is especially amazing in the quiet moments when Cosette, Eponine, Marius and Valjean join in gorgeous harmonies. Most impressive, also, is the way the astonishing orchestra, under the baton of Brian Eads, never overpowers the singers. That’s an art of sound-blending all too often lost these days.
Also most welcome is the comic relief of the unscrupulous innkeepers, the Thenardiers (understudy John Ambrosino on opening night and Allison Guinn). Their bawdy, crude wickedness is most delicious, especially in “Master of the House,” where hilarious little scenarios play out across the stage.
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And as always, I watched the ending through tears, as three hours of pent-up emotion come spilling out through the final moments of Valjean’s ultimate redemption.
If you go
• What: “Les Miserables”
• Where: Hancher Auditorium, 131 E. Park Road, Iowa City
• When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
• Run time: 2 hours 57 minutes, with one 18-minute intermission
• Tickets: $45 to $110, Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-800-HANCHER or hancher.uiowa.edu/2018-19/LesMiz
• Extra: 1 p.m. Sunday show will have ASL interpretation and live audio description; contact the box office to use either of these services
• Online: Lesmis.com/us-tour
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