The iconic stage musical Les Miserables hit Seattle’s Paramount Theater June 6-17! With some shows, you have the ability to go in blind, try something new and see what they have to offer. With Les Mis however, its reputation precedes it. Almost no other stage musical has had so much notoriety, praise, or time running on Broadway to match it, and any Broadway aficionado has no doubt already seen it multiple times. Even the casual viewer can find it now on Blu Ray or a streaming service for the 2012 film adaptation, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway.
So with all that baggage in advance, and the enormous fame surrounding it, is it still worth it to see this new incarnation? Definitely!
The story takes place in 1800’s France, and follows the adventures of Jean Valjean, a humble peasant imprisoned for theft of food for his starving family. His subsequent release by the obsessive inspector Javert and kind treatment from the Bishop of Digne inspires him to embark on a new life, breaking his parole but freeing himself of his haunted past. Years later, he’s the mayor of a small town and owner of a clothing factory. When one of his workers, Fantine, is fired outside his knowledge for having a child, he rescues her from arrest and promises to look after her daughter, Cosette.
Later, students in Paris show growing resentment for the government’s inaction to help the poor of the country. Led by Enjolras and Marius, they spark a rebellion in the streets that may endanger their lives, but Marius meets the now young woman Cosette and instantly falls in love. With Javert still on the hunt, will the lovers unite and Valjean finally become truly free?
The show’s plot is incredibly dense and spares close to nothing from the source novel. From a book so thick that it could be longer than the Bible, there is the danger of losing the audience in the multitude of events that occur onstage. However, the driving sentimental force of the show lies in its music and even if you have trouble orienting yourself with the story, the songs are able to carry you through like a river’s current.
Valjean is an immediately relatable and likable lead, even if he is a convict. His treatment is cruel and the punishment for his crime excessive, so at once you’re inclined as a viewer to sympathise with his troubles and hope he succeeds. This is made even more certain with the marvelous antagonist, policeman Javert. He doesn’t necessarily embody evil, he has a code of law that must be obeyed to the letter, and will not give up pursuit of even one criminal. This chase is the driving force of half the musical, and keeps the audience invested throughout his journey.
The other half, the love story between Cosette and Marius, may prove saccharine for some. Marius loves Cosette at first sight and fails to see that Eponine, the girl he already knows, is in love with him. Eponine is the long suffering daughter of the Thenardiers, so her life hasn’t exactly been fun. It doesn’t lend the audience much sympathy to Marius, given the unrequited love right in front of him. Eponine’s heart is broken and her story does not end happily, so Marius doesn’t come off well.
Still, many don’t end up happily ever after. The show’s title does roughly translate to ‘The Miserable Ones,’ and that is the point. Valjean keeps Cosette safe and saves Marius, but almost everyone else in the show meets a bad end. Eponine’s love dies, Javert can’t deal with the conflict between his morals and his code of law, and the revolution ultimately fails. It’s the resilience to continue, the same spirit that kept Valjean going all those years during and after his prison time, that persists and everybody can relate to.
The more well known Broadway production famously used a turntable to change set locations with the story. With the Paramount Theater not having such a feature, this version instead operated more traditionally, with added projected backgrounds inspired by paintings by the author of the original book, Victor Hugo. It gives the environments that use them a unique atmosphere, and in the case of the sewers and Javert’s climactic scene on the bridge of the river Seine, a creepy underscoring.
The sets are creatively shunted in and out from the wings on the side of the stage, acting as not just the shanty apartment and grubby businesses of Paris, but also the high class home of Valjean. The barricade of the revolutionary students is massive in comparison to the actors, and nearly fills the stage in its width. You feel like you’re there, trapped with these freedom fighters as they’re surrounded by the French army. Considering the enormous body count, it brings home the danger of the situation and what sacrifice these people are making for the cause of freedom.
The costume design is also terrific. Unfortunately it can often be overlooked in stage musicals in favor of the performances, plot, and sets, but everything fits the characters and firmly places the action of the show in 19th century France. Valjean’s convict uniform with the shackles, and his scraggly beard and hair instantly deliver the visual of a man long imprisoned. Then his next appearance in the proper Mayor’s outfit with trimmed back hair is stunning in its quickness and stark change for the appearance and the character.
Most memorably, the thieving Thenardiers are frequently clad in what appear to be stolen clothing, namely Mister Thenardier’s army coat and hat. Their grimy inn and pub matches the dirty costumes, and along with their appearances in the show, in particular the scene in the sewer, it accurately reflects their scavenger rat-like nature.
The most acclaimed aspect of the show is not scrimped, either. All the famous numbers are recreated in grand fashion, and in regards to both singing and scoring, are perfect. From the opening stings by the brass in the prologue until the final triumphant note of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing,’ it’s full on emotional upheaval and swooping melody. Not only is the music itself catchy and will burrow itself into your memory for weeks to come, but the instrumentation is well thought out and complements the story suitably.
Javert’s songs are underscored with heavy brass, symbolizing his connection to authority, and his militant personality. The love songs between Marius and Cosette are given a light tone dominated by high woodwinds, emphasizing the youthfulness and naivete of their love. Valjean’s music frequently uses a harpsichord to show his good qualities under the tough exterior. The Thenardiers get a swooping trombone complementing their singing, reinforcing the comic quality of their characters.
Nick Cartell assumes the role of Jean Valjean well. His vulnerability and transformation from angry convict to wise sacrificing father figure is valid and makes his story touching and genuine. Josh Davis is stunning as Javert, the persistent pursuer of Valjean. His intensity is breathtaking and visible from the back row. They both match each other in their singing too. Cartell’s voice covers the range, ringing deeply in ‘Who Am I?’ and quietly comforting Marius in ‘Bring Him Home.’
Everybody sings beautifully. Mary Kate Moore as Fantine nails the classic ‘I Dreamed A Dream,’ Sophie Knapp as young Cosette is adorable and amazing in her number ‘Castle On A Cloud,’ Joshua Grosso is boyishly charming with Marius’ ‘A Heart Full of Love’ and matches it with the heartbreak of ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,’ both J Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn are humorous and sing well in the Thenardiers’ ‘Master of the House,’ Emily Bautista as Eponine belts the great ‘On My Own,’ and all voices combine in epic fashion for the showstopper, ‘One Day More.’
For those who have only seen the movie, the effect of watching on stage is much more powerful, even if the actors aren’t movie stars you’re easily familiar with. Seeing this type of show is a spirit lifter, almost like a gift from the heavens with the quality of music it delivers. There isn’t a better ticket in town than this, and even if you’ve seen the movie give this a try. Its emotional weight and fabulous soundtrack will bring awe, laughter, and maybe tears.
Tuesday, June 12: 7:30pm
Wednesday, June 13: 7:30pm
Thursday, June 14: 7:30pm
Friday, June 15: 8pm
Saturday, June 16: 2pm, 8pm
Sunday, June 17: 1pm*, 6:30pm
*June 10, 1pm: An AVIA Interpreted performance, 6:30pm: An Open Caption performance. June 17, 1pm: An ASL Interpreted performance. For tickets to these performances, call the TTY line at 888-331-6774.