Les Misérables Stuns With the Power and Brilliance of its Sights and Sound! Perhaps the Greatest Touring Production I’ve Ever Seen.

Christine Heesun Hwang as Éponine Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

I’ve seen some fabulous touring productions over the years, I’ve even seen this touring production of Les Misérables when it was at the Orpheum in 2018. I recall enjoying the that production and being particularly taken with the set design, but this time was different. Perhaps it was the cast or possibly not being in the balcony as I was last time, but instead down close and centered on the main floor. Whatever the reason, this time I was completely swept up and amazed by the overwhelming beauty of Les Misérables. A jaw droppingly gifted cast including homegrown actor Christine Heesun Hwang and featuring a production and lighting design that makes every scene look like a Rembrandt painting come to life. Inarguably one of the greatest musicals of the late 20th century, every note of music, every lyric is perfection. A powerful story, the message of which seems especially pertinent given the ever-increasing inequity in the distribution of wealth and the dispensation of Justice. For a show nearly three hours in length there is not a single moment that doesn’t drive the story forward or feel completely necessary. I’ve no idea why I was so stunned by this production for I knew what I was getting into, I’ve seen it before, yet somehow I was unprepared for the power and artistry that unfolded before me.

Les Misérables for the unfamiliar is a musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Set in France in the first half of the 19th century, Les Misérables tells the story Jean Valjean who after spending 19 years on the Chain Gang for stealing a loaf of bread is finally paroled. Finding himself free only to discover that no one will give him a chance at a fresh start. Beaten down and starving, he’s taken in by a Bishop, given food and a place to rest, but out of desperation he steals some silver. When he is caught and brought before the Bishop by the police, the Bishop lies to the police saying that the silver cups were gifts. Given this reprieve from being sent back to the Chain Gang, Jean Valjean breaks his parole and changes his name in order to start a new life. The story then moves eight years into the future where Jean Valjean has become a factory owner and the Mayor. In his Factory we meet Fantine, who is soon dismissed unfairly, beginning the downward spiral which results in her having to sell everything she can including her hair and her body to stay alive and to send money for her daughter Cosette’s care. When she fights back against a wealthy man who is abusing her, she is on the verge being taken to prison by Javert when Jean Valjean comes to a rescue and has her taken to the hospital instead. A chance accident with a cart causes Jean Valjean to rescue a man. His act of strength reminds the policeman Javert of his former prisoner Jean Valjean he tells the Mayor of the similarity and comments that Jean Valjean has just been arrested. Jean Valjean realizing if he doesn’t say something then an innocent man will pay for his crimes goes to the court and confesses. Before he is taken back into custody Jean Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed that he will look after Cosette. Overpowering Javert, he escapes again. He goes and finds Cosette, who is living with the unscrupulous Thenardiers, an innkeeper, his wife, and their young daughter Eponine. After paying them off he and Cosette head out to make a new start. The story picks up nine years later in Paris where all of these characters along with a few new ones converge. Cosette falls in love with young student Marius whose in turn loved without his knowledge by Eponine. It’s a time of unrest in the city and a group of students seeing themselves as revolutionaries build a barricade to have a standoff with the authorities. All the key players come together and their fates are all intertwined. It all seems terribly complicated but somehow the story is quite easy to follow. It also all sounds terribly depressing but it isn’t, it’s uplifting, it’s powerful, it is wonderous.

The cast is nothing short of amazing Nick Cartell plays Jean Valjean with a vocal range equally astonishing in the deeper registers as he is in the upper. Powerful and passionate in the song “Who Am I?” where he contemplates whether to let the innocent man be tried in his place for his supposed crimes. Then, angelic in the higher pitched “Bring Him Home” where he sings to God to spare the life of Marius. I expected him to be pushing his voice to the limits but surprisingly it seemed perfectly within his range resulting in a tremendous round of applause from the audience. Everyone is of that quality in the cast. Haley Dortch as Fantine delivers one of the shows signature songs “I Dreamed a Dream” with all the tragedy and heartbreak of her character seeping into every line. The stand out (this was in my mind before I did my post show reading) was Christine Heesun Hwang as Eponine. Hwang, it turns out, is no stranger to Orpheum stage where as a student at Minnetonka High School she was part of Hennepin Theatre Trust Spotlight Showcase Program, winning Triple Threat her Junior year. It’s not hard to see why, if the character of Jean Valjean is the conscience of the show, Eponine is the heart. When she sings “On My Own” it veers towards a misstep as we genuinely find ourselves hoping that she will get together with Marius as opposed to Cosette. Vocally and performance-wise Hwang is as good as any performer I’ve seen on the Orpheum stage and better than most. Devin Archer is grand as the leader of the students, rousing the them stoking their anger at injustice. Hayden Tee is suitably dogged as Javert and gets one of the biggest moments of audience amazement in his final scene, which I will not spoil, but will say I gasped in wonder. Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall play the scheming M. and Mme Thenardier adding some well timed and much appreciated comic relief.

Not only does this show contain one of the most talented casts I’ve seen in one show but its production design including everything from the sets, the lighting, projections, and costumes creates one of the most beautiful looking shows I’ve ever seen. On one side of the stage there’s a doorway, on the other side there’s an a Stone Archway, those elements remain constant. Throughout the play those sides Push out to varying degrees and somehow these two openings come to look like completely new structures. It is a fascinatingly versatile set. It’s large and impressive solid-looking and yet, it seems to flow and change and reconfigure fluidly. Set and image design is by Matt Kinley they’re inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Paule Constable is the lighting designer and he doesn’t just direct and point lights he seems to paint with light. There’s such a melding of physical set design and lighting in this show and it is through this marriage of these two art forms that this painterly aesthetic it’s achieved. And yes, when the set and the lighting design look this good it is absolutely an art form. Having just seen some of the least successful bigger scale projection use last weekend at the Ordway, the projection is this show realized by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions was a reminder how well it can be used. This is a judicious use a projection that effectively enhances the environment and created some breathtaking illusions.

Les Misérables runs through December 18th at the Orpheum Theatre in Downtown Minneapolis As part of the 2022 – 2023 Bank of America Broadway on Hennepin season. For more information and to get tickets go to https://hennepintheatretrust.org/events/les-miserables-broadway-tickets-minneapolis-2022/ A word of warning if you are one of those folks who can’t seem to be in your theater seats when the show begins prepare to wait in the lobby until an approved late seating interval. From what I’ve heard the production enforces some fairly strict policies in this regard. Frankly if you can’t be on time I don’t care if you miss 15 minutes of the show, but I do feel sorry for the people you disrupt when you are allowed to take your seat.

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