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The company of LES MISÉRABLES performs “One Day More." Photo by Matthew Murphy.
Based on Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, Les Misérables, has long been a Broadway favorite, making it a perfect fit for Durham Performing Arts Center’s “Magic of Broadway” season. The story, of course, begins with Jean Valjean (Patrick Dunn), a French peasant and former criminal who has served 19 years in jail. After a surprising act of kindness is bestowed upon him, Valjean decides he must transform his life, even if it means breaking his parole and being hunted down by the ruthless inspector Javert (Preston Truman Boyd).
Filled with biblical imagery, these powerful opening scenes set the stage for the transformative, touching nature of this production. And, it definitely helps that Dunn’s tortured Valjean is instantly sympathetic, a character the audience wants to root for. The same can be said for the character of Fantine, portrayed at the opening night performance by understudy Olivia Dei Cicchi. Innocent-faced and sweet-voiced, Cicchi creates a Fantine the audience feels for, especially as her life takes a fast, downward turn early in the first act. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” further cements the sympathetic portrayal and is haunting in its beauty and intensity.
Nothing, however, could prepare viewers for the cuteness of Fantine’s daughter, Cosette, portrayed at this performance by tiny-voiced Kayla Teruel. The audience meets this endearingly adorable child only when Valjean comes to fetch her from the guardians she has been entrusted to: a rude innkeeper, hilariously portrayed by Jimmy Smagula, and his even-ruder wife, portrayed by a bawdy Michelle Dowdy, who milks every onstage moment and regularly sends the audience into peals of laughter. Channeling Carol Burnett’s Miss Hannigan, but more evil, Dowdy is an easy crowd-favorite, despite her character’s sinister nature.
Michelle Dowdy as ‘Madame Thénardier’ in the new national tour of LES MISÉRABLES. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
But, with a show that’s so heavy and that deals with themes as tragic as poverty, war, and suicide, a little comic relief is greatly needed. Heavier moments come after the humor, including the company’s powerful first act closer, “One Day More;” the epic battle scenes complete with explosions and graphic depictions of death; Dunn’s version of the powerful, prayerful “Bring Him Home,” and Boyd’s gut-wrenching delivery of his “Soliloquy.” All of this is backed by special effects and costuming choices that make the story all-too-real and impressively powerful.
And, as the tale winds down to its bittersweet but ultimately hopeful ending, it’s clear that Les Mis hasn’t lost its touch. An older show set in a much older time, it still sends a message the world desperately needs to hear today: “to love another person is to see the face of God.”
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