Les Misérables, arguably one of the most iconic and well-known musicals in theater history, is back at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre. Cameron Mackintosh’s production was conceived in 2009 to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the epic tale and played over 1000 performances on Broadway beginning in 2014. Incorporating new scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, this iteration features a slightly pared-down staging that does not include the turntable the show has often been known for.
Based on Hugo’s novel of the same name with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and original French-language lyrics by Alain Boublil (who was in attendance on opening night in Los Angeles) and Jean-Marc Natel, Les Misérables tells a story that spans nearly twenty years, set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. At its center is the cat-and-mouse game between Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), an ex-con who escapes parole to start a new life, and Javert (Josh Davis), a ruthless police inspector. Eager to atone for the sins of his past, Valjean befriends Fantine (Mary Kate Moore), a dying prostitute who has been defeated by poverty, promising to care for her daughter, Cosette (Jillian Butler). He rescues Cosette from the care of the evil Thénardier (J. Anthony Crane) and Madame Thénardier (Allison Guinn), who have treated her as a servant while doting on their own daughter, Éponine (Paige Smallwood). Nine years later, Cosette and Éponine cross paths again when they are both in love with the same man, Marius (Joshua Grosso), but the first stirs of revolution in Paris quickly threaten to tear everyone apart.
In the history of this musical, so many iconic performers have sung these songs, which certainly creates a perhaps unfair level of expectation for any cast to meet. As Valjean, Cartell starts out leaning too far into melodrama as Valjean escapes custody, but thankfully finds subtlety as the character evolves, culminating in a gorgeous rendition of “Bring Him Home” that received the loudest ovation of the night. The chemistry with Javert felt lacking in this version, though, with their dynamic sometimes getting lost in the shuffle. Davis’s appropriately menacing performance and impressive voice are ultimately one-note, making the character’s final moments, which are not helped by the most cringeworthy staging choice of the night, fall flat. Moore’s “I Dreamed a Dream” was not amongst my favorite renditions of the classic song, but acting-wise she left a better impression, especially considering the character disappears for about 2 hours of the show.
The love triangle is tricky—it is a challenge not to roll your eyes as Marius and Cosette fall in love at first sight, and as relatable as it may be, it is hard to watch Éponine moon over a man who obliviously sends her to run his errands and locate another woman he desires more on his behalf. For this to work at all, you really need to buy into the performances, and Grosso in particular did this well by making Marius very awkwardly endearing. When he literally chokes on his own first words to Cosette, it makes the ridiculous situation feel a bit more believable and sympathetic. Cosette has always been more of a plot device than a three-dimensional person, but Butler has a lovely soprano, and Smallwood sang a very convincing “On My Own,” with the audience seemingly in the palm of her hand. Crane and Guinn are total scene-stealers as the wicked Thénardiers, with Guinn in particular using terrific comedic timing to make the most of every moment, and Parker Dzuba was simply adorable as young, tragic Gavroche.
It is impossible not to miss the turntable in watching this staging, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. A stationary barricade is a bit less fun and dynamic, and requires more imagination during the battle scenes. Occasionally, projections (Fifty-Nine Productions) are used to create the effect of movement, particularly as Valjean carries an ailing Marius home through the tunnels of Paris. While this is moderately effective, it is so modern that it feels slightly incongruous with the sweeping 1800s-set story. And, as previously mentioned, the staging of Javert’s final number is a large misstep that comes across as over-the-top and unconvincing all at once.
The real star of Les Misérables is its beautiful sung-through score, full of recurring medleys and complicated counterpoint. From “Master of the House” to “One Day More,” nearly every song is catchy and recognizable, not to mention affecting, especially when performed by the large ensemble and orchestra. This aspect is enough to overcome any shortcomings of the production, and from the audience reactions on opening night, you would think this show was a buzzy new hit rather than something most seasoned theater fans have probably seen many times.
Les Misérables runs at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through June 2nd. The running time is 2 hours and 55 minutes, including an intermission. Tickets start at $49 and can be purchased here. After Los Angeles, the tour will play Colorado Springs, Sioux Falls, Forth Worth, and Chicago, among other cities. For information about those dates and to purchase tickets for other cities, click here.