Les Misérables storms the Benedum Center with moving tale of redemption | Pittsburgh City Paper

Les Misérables storms the Benedum Center with moving tale of redemption

click to enlarge Les Misérables storms the Benedum Center with moving tale of redemption
Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
North American national tour of Les Miserables

The North American touring production of Les Misérables, the classic musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel of the same name, with its dramatic story of love and redemption in the chaotic aftermath of the French Revolution, came to the Benedum Center this week.

Les Mis examines the weighty themes of sin, redemption, and suffering, in the context of the character Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), a man recently released from a harsh prison sentence. He takes on a new identity to avoid the stigma of his previous incarceration, and his foe Javert (Hayden Tee), the police inspector who is bizarrely, perhaps even erotically, obsessed with catching him.

The score, written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, is a roughly three-hour piece of music characterized by its dramatic verve, and layered and repetitive use of a small number of melodies. Some are catchier and more prominent than others, but Schönberg’s recurring motifs go a long way to helping a vast, sometimes meandering story remain cohesive.

In the show’s prologue, Valjean, angry that the government has taken 19 years of his life and labor, is beholden to no one until he meets a priest who shows him compassion even after Valjean’s unsuccessful attempt to rob him. Instead of turning him over to the police, the priest tells Valjean that he has redeemed his soul on behalf of God and gives him money to start a new life.

Valjean starts over despite Javert constantly turning up, forcing him to flee. As he moves from place to place, Valjean risks his life to do what he thinks is right, first caring for Fantine (Haley Dortch), his ex-employee who is dying of tuberculosis, and then her daughter Cosette, who he adopts as his own. Cartell plays Valjean with a stunning vocal register who appears not to age throughout most of the show’s two-decade span.

click to enlarge Les Misérables storms the Benedum Center with moving tale of redemption
Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean in Les Misérables

Later, the musical flirts with political and social critique through a secondary plot involving student revolutionaries agitating for the Paris Uprising of 1832, but ultimately has more to say about personal rather than social change. (The musical’s iconic depiction of the deadly Paris Uprising is based on Victor Hugo’s experience of the actual insurrection.)

The uprising instead serves as a super-charged backdrop for the romance between Cosette (Addie Morales) and Marius (Gregory Lee Rodriguez), one of the student leaders of the uprising. Cosette and Marius are both, unfortunately, and through no fault of the performers, vastly less compelling characters than their peers and could use the energetic boost.

Most of the production’s design elements and many of the performances are well-executed but somewhat unimaginative. They come together as proficient and sometimes moving, the highlights of which occur when the show breaks, even slightly, with its traditional interpretations.

The visual landscape of this production is appropriately gloomy for a 19th-century-set musical whose title is French for “the miserables,” placing scenes of dire rural and urban poverty in front of moody, impressionist backdrops framed by towering tenement facades and periodically flooded with smog. Understated lighting by Ben Jacobs and Karen Spahn makes effective use of white light to emphasize the characters’ grim surroundings. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell use a huge and lively ensemble to portray poor people as a mass of scary gremlins.

Typically, ever since John Napier’s lauded set design for the show’s initial Broadway and West End runs in the mid-1980s, set designers have relied on a turntable embedded in the stage to execute the show’s fluid timeline. This production, with set design by David Harris and Christine Peters, takes a slightly different, more cinematic approach to move the story through time and space, using projected backdrops and frequent swift, automated set changes. These high production values facilitate seamless transitions from scene to scene as the story sweeps through decades, pausing only a handful of times for applause.

The projections designed by Simon Harding and Jonathan Lyle operate through most of the show with mixed effects. At times, the projected backdrops bounced subtly throughout a scene, and were crucial to the execution of the show’s tense Act Two sequence, which starts at the scene of the battle, sinks below ground into the sewers, and ends with Javert’s demise. One critique would be that the projections never quite achieved the intended illusion of the insurrection’s dogged forward march.

click to enlarge Les Misérables storms the Benedum Center with moving tale of redemption
Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
Christine Heesun Hwang as Eponine in Les Misérables

Among the performers, who are all skilled and well-cast, Christine Heesun Hwang stands out as Éponine, one of the play’s most tragic characters, in part because her more contemporary vocal style cuts through the sometimes monotonous, florid vibrato of many soloists. Hwang and Dortch deliver masterful and moving renditions of two of musical theater’s most dramatic and ambitious ballads “On My Own,” and “I Dreamed a Dream,” respectively, that are at once lovely and wrenching.

The musical’s chief shortcoming, in my opinion, is that Bublil and Schönberg have almost entirely stripped the plot of historical or political context. The creative team long ago sacrificed both context and character development to better convey the musical’s simplistic, melodramatic story vaguely propped up by lofty ideals. As a result, probably no matter who mounts the production, Les Mis is already ill-fated long before the musical tragedy begins.

Les Misérables. Continues through Sun., Nov. 27. Benedum Center. Seventh St. and Penn Ave., Downtown. $35-155. trustarts.org