Josh Davis & Nick Cartell in Les Miserables. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Book by Alain Boubil & Claude Michel-Schonberg
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Original production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Resident Director Liam McIlwain, Associate Director Corey Agne
Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis
Entire contents copyright © 2018 by Kathi E.B. Ellis. All rights reserved.
According to Broadway in Louisville President Leslie Broecker in her program notes, this week’s performance of Les Miserables is the 8th time that they have presented the production in Louisville. In Louisville, I’ve seen the anemic 20th-anniversary tour and the robust and gritty 2011 revival tour marking the production’s 25th anniversary. Tonight’s performance marks my third Broadway in Louisville Les Miserables.
This iteration of the iconic musical is, in large part, a re-imagining of the 25th-anniversary version – the creatives of that interpretation are listed in the program, together with this tour’s associate director and designers. There are also nods to the original – the costuming and several scenes in which circling, sans turntable, is evoked– and a handful of visual influences from the 2012 movie.
And yet, this is a weirdly sanitized visitation of the 25th-anniversary production. From the first loud, bright, up-tempo chords of the prologue, it’s clear that this will be a slick, loud event. This impression is confirmed as song after song seems to take as its guiding principle “the songs of angry men” from the lyrics of “Do You Hear the People Sing”. All of the characters are angry – just angry, and loud. In addition, discerning the lyrics against the aggressively amplified orchestra, under the baton of music director Brian Eads, was frequently impossible.
Historically, of course, the wretched poor of France’s cities were, indeed, angry and ready to be radicalized by politicians and students. Nonetheless, to create a world in which these characters are only angry reduces their humanity, and acting choices, and leaves the audience unable to make emotional connections to the characters’ plight and sacrifices. And this is a problem when we are embarking on a twenty-year vendetta.
It took until a handful of quieter moments in act two for some of the characters’ humanity to shine through, during the more ballad-like numbers when the acting could be foregrounded. Nick Catrell’s “Bring Him Home” finally allowed Jean Valjean’s towering compassion to shine through. Eponine’s “On My Own” (Emily Bautista) at the top of the act was heartbreakingly simple. And the aching “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” sung by the surviving Marius (Robert Ariza) captured overwhelming loss.
The prologue is critical for setting up the essential conflict between Valjean and Inspector Javert (Josh Davis) and many of the lyrics were rushed and mushy, overwhelmed by the orchestration. Thus the nuances of why Javert is compelled to seek out prisoner 24601 are glibbed over, and the transformation of Valjean from desperate prisoner to stalwart citizen is almost melodramatic. There were ripples of chuckles when the Bishop of Digne (Andrew Maughan) gave him additional candlesticks to save him from re-imprisonment for theft.
On opening night Davis didn’t recover from such over-simplification, even his more humane moments seemingly for appearance’s sake. His “Stars” overtly foreshadowed the act two “Soliloquy”, diminishing the emotional impact of suicide by a character of great rectitude. Last night, in this scene, I also found myself missing the much more stylized staging of the original production for the moment of his death.
It is always delightful to experience young performers holding their own with adult actors. And Gavroche (Julian Emile Lerner last night, also Jonah Mussolino) did not disappoint with his gamin bravado. Little Cosette (Elsa Avery Dees, sharing this role and Young Eponine with Sophie Avery) was appropriately petite and waiflike, holding the audience’s attention with a clear “Castle on a Cloud”.
The hard-working ensemble was just that: hardworking, bringing a great deal of energy to the large numbers. I wish that directors (staging, movement, choreography, combat, music, etc.) would have focused all that energy on nuance and detail so that these epic characters could once again stand out individually, substantiating all of the character names listed in the program, embodying the varying motivations of why a people rise against tyranny.
April 10 – 15, 2018
PNC Broadway In Louisville
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 West Main Street
Louisville, KY 40204
Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award. Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.