When Broadway’s Les Misérables turned 25 in 2010, it got a bit of a makeover. Producers Laurence Connor and James Powell updated the orchestration, redesigned the set, and took inspiration from the dark, stormy paintings of Les Misérables‘ author Victor Hugo. The result, which is currently on a U.S. tour and opened last night at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center, is pretty much unmissable.
Les Miz hardly needs a synopsis, but here’s a quick one if you’ve never seen the play or the recent movie. It takes place in France in the early 1800s and centers on Jean Valjean, who was thrown in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. When he is released after 19 years, a chance meeting with an abbot persuades him to turn his life around and become an honest, generous man. Over the next 20 years, he takes in a young, neglected girl named Cosette and raises her as his daughter, all the while evading the pursuit of a fanatically devoted policeman, Javert, who oversaw Valjean while he was a prisoner.
It is truly an epic morality tale, one that pits the generous, kind-hearted convict against the cruel and merciless arm of the law. It depicts the plight of the poor and downtrodden, and the vital beauty of idealism. It’s the kind of play that has the audience crying for, oh, maybe half or two-thirds of the show.
Last night was no exception. The fast-paced prologue, which quickly runs through Valjean’s life as a prisoner and his decision to make something of his life, was made even more dramatic with a sharp ending, which flashes the name of the play across a backdrop of one of Hugo’s paintings. The paintings, though quite colorful, add a certain unsettling darkness to the show, and make for gorgeous accents when used with the rickety tenements that make up most of the set.
The Paris barricade remains one of the most striking elements of Les Miz. Its haphazard jumble of furniture, wagons, and debris is both picturesque and sadly indicative of the disorganization of the young revolutionaries, who one by one fall in the fight.
The cast, as expected, is outstanding, belting out songs with a rawness and power that had people clapping after every song. Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman), in particular, carried her notes with stirring beauty, especially in her showstopper “On My Own.” Cosette(Lauren Wiley), a lilting soprano, hit her high notes with an angelic sweetness that reminded us just how rare it is to hear a true soprano, and how wonderful it is when we do. Valjean (Peter Lockyer) and Javert (Andrew Varela) played their opposing parts to perfection.
When the curtain finally closed, the audience leapt to its feet, tears streaming, and would hardly let the performers leave the stage. When we finally sneaked out, people were still clapping. And that’s about as good a review as one can get.