Deemed one of the best and most beloved musicals of all time, Les Miserables is a show whose reputation precedes it. Over the years, my exposure to it has been colored by its reputation of theatrical eminence. I remember reverently singing "Do You Hear the People Sing?" in high school chorus; then, Susan Boyle shot to fame for her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" on Britain's Got Talent (she now has a musical based on her own life, also titled I Dreamed a Dream); the signature ballad was later featured on one of my favorite shows, Glee, as a duet by Broadway leading ladies Idina Menzel (Wicked) and Lea Michele (Spring Awakening). Another signature song, "On My Own," is a favorite of countless performers. The aforementioned Lea Michele used it for her audition piece for Glee, and even actress/comedian Sarah Silverman gave a rendition of it on SiriusXM Radio, accompanied by host and theatre industry insider Seth Rudetsky. A highly anticipated film version of the show is beginning production as well, and the cast is loaded with stars like Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway (not to mention some Broadway stars like beloved London Eponine, the lovely Samantha Barks).
Needless to say, I had high expectations when I finally got the chance to see the 25th anniversary tour of Les Mis. They were not only met--they were exceeded. I must start with my most vivid memory from the production: the experience of seeing and hearing Jean Valean (played by J. Mark McVey) perform "Bring Him Home." I have seen a lot of theatre. I'm talking dozens and dozens of Broadway, off-Broadway, and touring shows (I have the Playbill collection to prove it), but I can not remember a time when I have been so moved by a performance. I have been touched and even brought to tears a couple of times (Next to Normal and The Normal Heart--no relation--come to mind), but the only way I can describe how this performance made me feel is that I now understand how people can sit in a theatre or even in their own home, put on opera music, and weep. The emotions come partly from the heart-wrenching lyrics and literary context, but equally from the beauty of the music and the virtuosity of the singers. And I don't even particularly like such classical-style music, but you'd have to be made of stone not to be moved by this piece. At the risk of coming off too hyperbolic to be taken sincerely, I'll leave it at that.
I came into the show knowing three songs very well: "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" (I have a taste for dramatic solo ballads). They were beautifully performed by my Fantine (Betsy Morgan), Eponine (Chasten Harmon), and Marius (Max Quinlan), respectively, each a touching solo sung with limited staging, emphasizing their pure, emotional qualities. My Javert (Andrew Varela) gave a committed, authentic performance, making a perfect foil for Valjean and a rivaling McVey's considerable talent. One of the most pleasant surprises I discovered was the comic elements of the show (which it sorely needs for some emotional balance), delivered by the deliciously dastardly Thenardiers, played by Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic. Their spirited, irreverent performances of "Master of the House" and "Beggars at the Feast" were welcome reprieves from the taxing drama of the rest of the show. Other highlights included Jeremy Hays' steely Enjolras, leader of the battles at the barricade, and Julie Benko's performance as Cosette, offering a shining soprano voice and a counterpart to the unfortunate Eponine.
I now understand why Les Miserables is such an enduring sensation that has played thousands of performances on Broadway, in London's West End, and on tour. I would see it over and over again for both of the chief reasons I love musicals: (1) Experiencing a story, richly woven with both spoken words and song, coming to life before your eyes and taking you on an emotional journey, and (2) Appreciating the admirable talent of performers at the height of their craft. And with that, I add mine to the catalogs of rave reviews of the legendary Les Miserables.