Welcoming back Les Misérables is like welcoming back a friend who has been away for a long time. And by the energy of the crowd at the Buell Theatre in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Tuesday night, you could tell Les Miswas a friend that Denver had missed very, very much.
The musical, whose opening night in Denver was August 20th at 8:00 pm, is based on Victor Hugo’s infamous novel and adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Laurence Connor and James Powell direct the 25th anniversary production.
Les Mis is more than just a musical. It’s a stripping down of human nature to its most raw and undignified state. It captures the essence of human struggle, passion, sacrifice, and growth. This production of Les Mis captured all of these humanistic elements in more personal way than has been done before. The conversational, as opposed to purely song-like, structure brought the audience to a new personal level with the characters and had everyone reaching for their tissues. The 25th anniversary production brought with it some changes in orchestration, staging, and scenery.
The story of Les Mis is centered around the life of Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey), an ex convict, trying to start a new life. After a kindly Bishop (James Zannelli) lies in order to save Valjean from returning to jail, Valjean decides he has to change his life for the better. Throughout his life he is chased by the inspector Javert (Andrew Varela), who always seems to be right on his shadow. After changing his name and becoming a factory owner and Mayor, Valjean promises to care for one of his factory workers, Fantine’s, (Betsy Morgan), illegitimate daughter Cosette (Maya Jade Frank and Juliana Simone) who has been living with a cruel inn keeper and his wife. Nine years later, the deadly Paris rebellion of 1832 is well under way. Enjolras (Jeremy Hays) and Marius (Justin Scott Brown) lead a street gang of students accompanied by Marius’s friend and Cosette’s childhood foster sister, Eponine (Chasten Harmon). A love triangle is formed between Cosette (Jenny Latimer), Marius and Eponine, the last who dies in an attempt to reach Marius who is fighting behind the barricade. Javert and Valjean meet once more and Valjean spares Javert’s life. Overcome by the mercy Valjean has shown him, Javert jumps off a bridge. Marius and Cosette are married and upon realizing that Valjean was the one who rescued Marius, husband and wife run to the dying Valjean. Memories of lost souls rejoin Valjean as he is welcomed in heaven as a redeemed man.
This production focused on creating a more personal connection with the audience by having the performers conversationally sing, meaning the lyrics were delivered in more of a spoken rather than rhythmic manner. While this does add a different dimension to the plot, the majority of audience members want their favorite songs to be delivered as just that-a song. It’s much harder to sing and hum along when the performer switches between song and speech. That being said, the times of strict singing were executed with perfection.
Chasten Harmon, playing Eponine, put on a first class performance, far outclassing her fellow female leads. Her solo number, “On My Own” had audiences’ eyes welling up from the first note. Harmon has a remarkable sense of control in her high and low range, as well as with her dynamics. Nothing brings out goose bumps more than a high range note sung at a piano dynamic, and boy were the goose bumps rising.
J. Mark McVey similarly executed his role with an enormous amount of control and soul. He had the audience in his hand after singing his first note during the “Soliloquy.” This was more than just a musical number; it was a confession. He kneeled on the very edge of the stage and reached out to the audience, burying his soul and pleading for no judgment in return. “Bring Him Home” was McVey’s other shinning moment, and the purity of his voice brought a satisfying tranquility to the soul that only a truly gifted voice can bring. McVey’s outstanding voice and electric chemistry made him a crowd favorite.
One cannot mention crowd favorites without bringing up the infamous ‘Masters of the House,’ Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, played by Richard Vida and Shawna M. Hamic, respectively. The raunchy and deceptive couple never fails to bring laughter to this very intense musical, and they did not disappoint last night. Hamic had the perfect combination of comedic timing, attitude and musicality, and she proudly took control of her scenes.
The orchestra, led by Robert Billing, sounded crisp and confident, and was full without feeling over-powering. This production cut the feel-good song “Little People,” traditionally sung by young Gavroche, but all of the other fan favorites like “One Day More,” “At the End of the Day,” and “Who Am I?” appeared.
The ensemble was very tight and enhanced scenes with their constant energy. The entire cast used the full area of the stage and they weren’t afraid to go right up to the very edge, almost tipping over into the pit.
Set designer Matt Kinley was the unsung hero of the evening. The screens and backdrops, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, brought forth the beauty that can be found in darkness, a message that spreads into the play’s plot. The shadowy colors were reminiscent of a European murder tale and focused stage lighting enhance the mood of each scene. The second act took some daring new turns, creating a 3D effect as Valjean trudges through the sewers with the wounded Marius in his arms. Another 3D effect was created when Javert jumps from the bridge, and it feels as if the audience falls with him. Both were effective techniques that added a new dimension to the play.
It was clear from Tuesday night’s performance that Denver was ecstatic to welcome this cherished play back into their arms. Les Misérables is a one-of-a-kind musical that never fails to stir up a whirlwind of emotion, and it’s a very special emotion that is produced. The music is infectious and is the type of score that will remain in your head for weeks to come. Live theatre has the power to reach into people’s hearts and bless them with a fulfilled sensation that is guaranteed to last long after the final curtain call. Les Mis does that and more.