‘Les Miserables’ makes a victorious return to Playhouse Square (review)

November 3, 2018 GMT

‘Les Miserables’ makes a victorious return to Playhouse Square (review)

CLEVELAND, Ohio - How do you review “Les Miserables” in 2018? How do you weigh in on the “world’s most beloved musical” on its umpteenth tour?

Last seen at Playhouse Square in 2013 (and 2011 before that), the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel is the fifth-longest-running show on Broadway, and has toured 44 countries. Add in the 2012 movie, and it’s a safe bet most of the world has met Jean Valjean.

Fortunately, Hugo’s tale of love, loss and redemption is timeless. And, perhaps, the rebellious story of small people fighting big powers is more timely than ever.

The current tour directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell doesn’t mess with, well, almost perfection. There’s a reason Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s 1987 Tony winner, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, is so beloved. Make that many reasons: the transcendent songs; the epic, heartbreaking yet inspiring story; and, always, a top-notch cast.

Set designer Matt Kinley has come up with a particularly powerful, yet simple staging: a looming three-story tenement, the facade of Valjean’s elegant Parisian house, the Thenardiers’ divey inn and other locations are represented against shadowy projections of ominous skylines and muted paintings inspired by Victor Hugo.

Tony Award-winning Paul Constable’s lighting is exceptionally dark throughout, literally, one of the darkest shows I’ve ever seen at Playhouse Square.

The low light sets the perfect mood for the bleak tale that begins with Jean Valjean’s release from the chain gang in 1815. Finding it impossible to be accepted in society, he steals silver from the one man to treat him kindly, the Bishop of Digne. When confronted with the theft, the bishop lies to the police to save him — a moment of mercy that transforms his life.

He is never, however, able to escape the shadow of his past — or Inspector Javert. Even when living as the upright factory owner and mayor Monsieur Madeleine, when raising young Cossette, whom he rescued from the terrible Thenardiers after her poor mother, Fantine, perished; even when living in Paris during the rebellion of 1832, Jean Valjean cannot escape his truth. “Les Miserables” is an unrelenting tale.

Still, even in the dark, there is light. In the case of “Les Miserables,” that light is the divine music — performed exceptionally by this touring cast.

Allison Guinn and J. Anthony Crane provide several moments of levity as the outrageously evil Thenardier and wife. Their poppy, stomping “Master of the House” and “Beggars at the Feast” are delightfully entertaining.

Nick Cartell is everything a Jean Valjean should be: beaten-down, tender, loving, strong and Christlike. His soaring “Bring Him Home” and tragically beautiful “Who am I?” are among the show’s high points. Also exceptional is Mary Kate Moore on Fantine’s bittersweet lament to a lost life, “I Dreamed a Dream.” “The People’s Song,” performed by the students and citizens, is as rousing as ever. Eponine’s (Paige Smallwood) “On My Own” is lovely. And Josh Davis’ Javert is a knockout, especially his final, dramatic “Soliloquy” before he commits suicide. His plunge from the bridge is one of the show’s most dramatic moments, as the bridge falls away and he seems to plunge into the darkness.

Just as powerful — and more inspiring — is the anthemic flag-waving, full-cast finale march. It’s hard not to jump to your feet to join them.


Les Miserables

What: Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by James Fenton. Book by Alain Boublil and Schonberg. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Through November 18.

Where: Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, Cleveland.

Tickets: $39 - $140. Tickets for all performances are currently on sale, and may be purchased at the Playhouse Square Ticket Office (1519 Euclid Avenue in downtown Cleveland), online at playhousesquare.org or by calling 216-241-6000. Group orders of 15 or more may be placed by calling 216-640-8600.