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‘Les Misérables’ — An Iowa City favorite returns to the Hancher stage

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Les Misérables

Hancher Auditorium — through Dec. 9; scattered seats available

Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean in the touring production of Les Misérables. — via lesmis.com

Les Misérables, the epic musical based on Victor Hugo’s expansive 1862 novel, returns to Hancher this week. The play has a long and popular history in Iowa City. First performed at the Hancher during the 1989-90 season, the musical returned during the 1991/92, 1994/95, 1996/97, and 1999/2000 seasons. Nearly 93,000 have seen the show at the Hancher during this time. Now, after almost 18 years (just shy of Jean Valjean’s 19 year imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread), Les Miz is back and 1,250 more locals attended the opening night performance on Tuesday, Dec. 4.

The basics of the plotline are likely familiar to most potential viewers, but summarized here: Before the play begins, prisoner Jean Valjean has stolen bread to feed his starving sister and his sentence has been extended to 19 years. We first see him toiling as a galley slave on a ship.

After being released, he breaks parole, but due to the kindness of a bishop, Valjean reinvents himself as a successful factory owner and benevolent mayor. His redemption, however, is always threatened by police officer Javert’s obsessive attempt to recapture the escapee. Valjean adopts Cosette, the daughter of the ill-fated and exploited Fantine, saving the girl from a life of abuse at the hands of the opportunistic innkeepers Thénardiers.

Jillian Butler as Cosette in the touring production of Les Misérables. — via lesmis.com

As Cosette grows into a beautiful young woman she meets the student-activist Marius, and they fall in love. Their love story is complicated both by Valjean’s protective nature and Éponine, Cosette’s childhood friend who passionately loves Marius, even following him into battle. Politically active students, led by the idealistic Enjolras, incite a revolution, and Valjean enters the fray. He shows mercy to the captured prisoner of war Javert, causing the latter to reconsider his monomaniac pursuit. He also saves the life of Marius, so that his daughter may have a happy life.

Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell create an epic in the most literary sense of the word: it covers a large period of time (1815-1832), focuses on the hero’s journey (Jean Valjean’s journey from embittered prisoner to self-sacrificing patriarch), and is a work about nation-building (in this instance, the Bourbon Restoration and the beginning Industrial Period).

As an epic, this production excels. Matt Kinley’s sets are monumental, calling to mind classical works of art, from a Bruegel rural landscape to Hogarth tavern scenes of debauchery, and from the wigmakers seated like DaVinci’s Last Supper to recreating a realized crowded Paris cityscape. These panoramic landscapes are strengthened by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt’s deft musical staging; if audience members could take photographs, any moment of this play would become a beautifully staged portrait.

Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras in the touring production of Les Misérables. — via lesmis.com

This is especially true in the climactic battle scene, which is backlit and energetic. Hugo’s own tormented ink washes serve as obvious inspirations for the expressionistic projections created by 59 Productions, especially in the sewer scenes (The Mouth of Darkness (1856)) and Javert’s watery demise (The Wave or My Destiny (1857)).

Andreane Neofitou’s costumes, too, are beautiful, from Cosette’s romantic ball gowns to the ostentatious getups of fops and the nouveau riche to the torn rags of the titular wretched poor folks. The music is as epic in scope as the visual aspects of the production, as conductor and musical director Brian Eads leads the resplendent symphony with moving arrangements of these beloved numbers.

The performances are top notch, with Nick Cartell leading this exceptional cast as protagonist Valjean. Cartell has a strong and sonorous tenor with an impressive range, from the deeper growls of agony in “Who am I?” to his high notes in “Bring Him Home” and his moving “Finale.” Cartell’s rising range over the character’s narrative highlights how far Valjean has come from his nadir at the beginning of the play to his redemptive death at the end.

Josh Davis provides a classic counterpart as Javert, with his demanding baritone and strong features. Mary Kate Moore turns in a moving performance as Fantine as we see the character’s quick descent from virtuous single mother to dying, shorn, prostitute and her plaintive “I Dreamed a Dream.”

Paige Smallwood as Éponine is sometimes nasal in her solos, as in “On My Own,” but this underscores the stubborn tenacity of her character, who dresses as boy to enter the fray and dies for her cause. Her performance is moving, and she harmonizes beautifully with the lovers Marius (Joshua Grosso) and Cosette (Jillian Butler, who has a lovely, clear soprano) in “A Heart Full of Love,” who remain (as always) as idealized ciphers. As Enjolras, Matt Shingledecker is dashing with a high tenor and heroic demise.

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Fan favorites, however, were the bawdy Thénardiers, played with ribald panache by Allison Guinn and John Ambrosino, and the archetypal urchin Gavroche played with pluck and charm by Parker Dzuba.

Allison Guinn as Madame Thénardier in the touring production of Les Misérables. — via lesmis.com

If the play excels in the epic mode, there are some (though minor) failings at a more intimate level. For example, the play moves so quickly that Fantine’s fall from grace feels rushed, the love between Èponine and Marius (even if he only cares for her as his dearest friend) is more developed than the relationship between Marius and his bride, and Javert’s consuming vendetta is more petty than pathetic. The emotional affects of this musical are occasionally compromised for the large scale effects.

It is hard not to see this play and find some compelling contemporary corollaries, from the current “Yellow Vests” movement/riots in France concerning gas tax rates and stagnant incomes to global student protests to Fantine’s sexual assault and the #metoo movement.

Les Misérables is so popular, I contend, because the social and political issues that Hugo spends hundreds of pages discussing in his novels are timeless issues of social, economic and gendered inequities, such as the power of people to fight for change (even if they do not always succeed). There are wicked people, such as the Thénardiers; there are good people who suffer from external causes (Valjean, Fantine); and there are those who believe strongly in their dogmas, even if they are wrong (Javert).

This is a musical that captures the intertwined stories of people who are genuinely good, those who strive for grace and light and those who die fighting for the rights of others. It is the vindicating principles of this work and the stirring arrangements of these philosophies into song that will guarantee that Les Misérables remains a favorite of Iowans for years to come.


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