By Morgan Politzer
The cast of “Les Misérables” certainly proved themselves to be a “Master of the House” in Laurence Connor and James Powell’s version of this iconic musical.
Set entirely to music, “Les Misérables” takes place during the French Revolution and follows the story of escaped prisoner Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) and his life on the run from the relentless policeman Javert (Josh Davis) after stealing a loaf of bread. After gaining his freedom and committing to a life of honesty and virtue, Jean Valjean agrees to raise Cosette (Jillian Butler) as his own after her mother Fantine (Mary Kate Moore) passes away while working as a prostitute to earn money to care for her young daughter.
Perhaps one of the production’s greatest accomplishments is the impeccable singing talent of each cast member. One by one, they are given their moment to shine. Not a note was out of place, and each male singer’s voice felt like ear candy, particularly Cartell’s silky-smooth rendition of “Bring Him Home,” a painfully underrated song.
Jean Valjean’s inner turmoil and hate for the torture he and the other prisoners must endure is obvious with Cartell’s deep vibrato and visceral anguish as he asks the quintessential question of self-reform and second chances as he earns his freedom. The plot then jumps forward in time to 1823 and Fantine’s failed desperate attempts to keep her job and fend off the culture of sexual harassment she is forced to endure while working in a factory. There is moment of high energy right before Moore begins to sing, instantly holding the audience in the palm of her hand as she washes them in her sorrows and dreams of a long-ago love in the iconic ballad “I Dreamed a Dream.” Moore’s rich voice fills with strength, eventually fading as Fantine slowly dies, begging with her last heartbreaking breath that Jean Valjean find and rescue young Cosette (Madeleine Guilbot/Vivi Howard) from her abusive caretakers, inn owners Thénardier (J Anthony Crane) and his wife Madame Thénardier (Allison Guinn) and their young daughter Éponine (Madeline Guilbot/Vivi Howard).
Madame Thénardier and her husband provide much needed comic relief in an otherwise serious and dramatic production. With mildly vulgar antics and subtle jokes, their song “Master of the House” demonstrates Madame Thénardier’s desire to sometimes kill her husband and other times keep him around as her partner in crime to keep them afloat by stealing from their unsuspecting customers.
The plot then jumps again to 1932. Cosette and Éponine (Paige Smallwood) are now adults, forced to confront their own hardships in the face of war. After a chance encounter with Marius (Joshua Grosso), both Cosette and Marius are breathless with the excitement of first love. Grosso acts with a cheeky and lovable boyish charm, blissfully unaware that his best friend Éponine is hopelessly and madly in love with him. Éponine is forced to confront the reality that Cosette is no longer the abused and unloved ugly duckling she tormented as a child, and instead is living a life of luxury with a doting father and the man she loves.
In her heartbreaking ballad “On My Own,” Smallwood poured her heart on the stage, mourning the loss of what she now knows was never truly hers. With a voice that is not traditionally “sweet” or “soft” but is full and powerful just the same, Éponine’s desperation and loneliness are real and palpable as Smallwood sings the final note.
In comparison to the love-struck Marius and Éponine, their friends and the young students of the revolution have sworn their love and allegiance to France and the rebellion. The swoon-worthy Matt Shingledecker steals the show as Enjolras during “Red and Black” as he chastises Marius for not giving his whole heart to France and criticizes the other fighters for indulging him.
After years of searching, Javert finally finds Jean Valjean, only to be overcome with guilt and anguish. While he is the “villain,” it is impossible not to feel bad for Javert as he fights for what he truly believes to be the right side of the law. Davis does so with rich, deep notes from his chest as he questions his lonely existence and life’s purpose in a soliloquy that mirrors the melody of Jean Valjean’s opening one of hope and new beginnings.
As the final battle draws nearer, associate set designers David Harris and Christine Peters and associate lighting designer Richard Pacholski rise to the occasion as they elegantly and expertly create the foundation for perhaps one of the most epic battle and iconic death scenes in theater history. Using an electronic video screen to create 3-D images inspired by paintings from the original novelist Victor Hugo, crucial scenes, such Jean Valjean hauling the wounded and unconscious Marius over his shoulder through the sewers of Paris, reach a new level of intensity. Alongside David Harris and Christine Peters’ wooden buildings that mirror the wear-and-tear felt by the characters that inhabit them, the combination of old and new makes for a movie-like experience and cinematic scene changes.
While full of the loss and heartache that comes with war, “Les Misérables” is also full of love and hope and the promise of freedom that comes with “One Day More.” Although the stage no longer rotates during the classic production, strategic directing and design allow the production to expertly enter the modern era of theater.
Les Misérables will run at The Hippodrome Theater in Baltimore through October 14.
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Matthew Murphy.
Morgan Politzer is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.