Producer Cameron Mackintosh has a deep love for Les Misérables, his English adaptation of the original 1980 French musical. Of course, that original musical was an adaptation of its own, drawing its greatness and inspiration from Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Despite the age of both the musical and its source material, Les Mis has proven that it stands the test of time. Whether that’s a testament to the greatness of the novel, Mackintosh’s passion, the timeless themes, or, most likely, a combination of all of these factors, one thing remains immutable: Les Misérables is a powerful show that challenges perceptions, causes thought, and inspires much-deserved devotion. These truths couldn’t be more evident in the current touring production, onstage now at the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC).
Masterfully directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this iteration of Les Mis prioritizes clarity and simplicity. While the story of one-time prisoner Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) takes place long ago—starting in 1815 to be exact—, its truths know no constraints. The central message is that grace, kindness, and belief can transform even the hardest of hearts and that humanity must always take precedence over legality. These ideals come through loud and clear thanks to streamlined staging, adept direction, and dynamic performances.
Claude-Michel Schonberg’s haunting, unforgettable music, made more complete with new orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe, Christopher Jahnke, and Stephen Brooker, perfectly sets every scene and helps immerse viewers in the harsh 19th century French world that is not so different from our own. Clearly touching on themes as pressing and contemporary as sexual harassment, poverty, and the predatory, damning nature of the criminal justice system, this production upholds the script’s relevance and highlights its modern-day connections.
Even moments of lightness, such as “Master of the House,” don’t feel contrived here. Instead, they are juxtaposed against purposefully lewd, bawdy choreography to highlight the issues that linger above the onstage humor. A similar concept is evident in “Lovely Ladies” and effectively asks viewers to question these “silly” moments they may have glossed over in previous viewings.
At the heart of these and the many other powerful moments in the show, however, are the incredibly gifted cast members. Haley Dortch is an indomitable Fantine who evokes both personal sympathy and systemic outrage through her strong, sure musical voice. Every second of “I Dreamed a Dream” paints a painful reality.
In a more enigmatic turn, Preston Truman Boyd creates an almost redeemable Javert. Other star turns include petite Vivian Atencio as a sweet-voiced, pint-sized Little Cosette, Gregory Lee Rodriguez as a hopeful Marius, and a hilarious Eden Mau as the Innkeeper’s Wife. She is matched in humor only by her onstage counterpart, Benjamin H. Moore as the Innkeeper. Of course, none of these characterizations would be complete without Cartell’s Valjean. The actor deftly portrays every transition, every kindness, and every heartbreak that makes Valjean so pivotal.
As the dense story moves toward its inevitable but not-without-hope end, viewers are swept up and away by this magical combination of music, lighting, sound, costume, and story. It’s impossible not to feel both transported and transformed by this production, a quality that enables it to hearken back to its roots while still bringing something new and worthwhile to the table.
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