Broadway comes to Milwaukee via several local performing arts groups, and through the Marcus Performing Arts Center. At the Marcus Center, the Johnson Financial Group’s Broadway series opens its 2022-23 season with one of the most popular musicals of the 20th century, Les Misérables.
Winner of eight Tony Awards when it opened in 1987, Les Miz (as it’s often called) has played to more than 130 million people worldwide. The last time the musical visited Milwaukee was during the 2018 Broadway series season.
The musical has seen some technical tweaking over the years, and the current tour, now playing in Milwaukee, is one of the best this reviewer has seen. It may not rival the 1987 Broadway original cast at the Winter Garden Theatre (starring Colm Wilkinson), but it is breathtaking in delivering the epic scope this musical has to offer.
It tells the story of the French Revolution, as told in Victor Hugo’s famed novel (of the same title). The book was adapted for the stage by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with music and lyrics by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzner.
The original Broadway run closed in 2003, but Les Miz has been revived several times. The most recent revival, in 2019, closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. It reopened briefly in 2021.
Those who haven’t seen the stage version may be familiar with the 2012 Hollywood film, which features an all-star cast including Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe.
Nothing Can Match Watching This Musical Live
Yet, nothing can match seeing Les Miz live. It is no wonder that this monumental, uplifting story has become one of the most celebrated musicals in theatrical history. The three-hour production, featuring a large cast, tells an enthralling story of broken dreams and unrequited love, passion, sacrifice and redemption—a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit.
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Jean Valjean, a hunted fugitive and the musical’s main character, vows to give his life to God after receiving a priest’s kindness. He is trailed for the rest of his life (almost) by Javert, an officer who believes that all must answer to the law.
Valjean breaks his parole and starts life anew. When he learns that his actions have unwittingly led to the downfall of the virtuous Fantine, he pledges to raise her young daughter, Cosette.
Years later, Cosette falls in love with Marius, a handsome student and soldier in the revolution. Valjean, realizing that Cosette’s future is with Marius, looks after him during the fighting. When Marius is seriously wounded, Valjean drags the boy through the Paris sewers until he can receive medical care. Meanwhile, Valjean must keep an eye out for the vigilant Javert.
An Unspoken, Unrequited Love
Days before the revolution begins, we learn that another young woman also loves Marius. Eponine, a street rat, cannot stray far from her friend Marius. Eponine eventually accepts the painful truth that Marius only has eyes for Cosette.
Les Miz has one of the greatest musical scores ever written. It includes “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Lovely Ladies,” “One Day More,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and many more.
The tour cast has exceptionally strong voices. In addition to the songs already mentioned, Hayden Tee (as Javert) impresses with his solo, “Stars,” as does Nick Carter (as Jean Valjean) in his nighttime prayer, “Bring Him Home.” Carter sings sweetly or powerfully, as indicated by the tune, and he has the vocal range to deliver some of the show’s best musical moments.
Other highlights of this production include a tender “On My Own,” sung by Christine Heesun Hwang as Eponine. Hwang is such an appealing Eponine overall that she evokes the heartache of a woman who is truly lost.
All the actors rise to the occasion, including Haley Dortsch as the unlucky Fantine, Christina Rise Hall as her young daughter, Cosette, and Gregory Lee Rodriguez as Marius. As the pair of innkeepers/con artists, Cora Jane Messer and Matt Crowle are a hilarious delight. The entire ensemble works together seamlessly to create a masterful and memorable performance.
Interestingly, the visual look of Les Miz has changed markedly over the years. In the current tour, set designer Matt Kinley gets a tremendous boost by some amazing projections and an outstanding lighting system by Paule Constable.
While watching the shadowy images and silhouettes of actors moving about the set, one is reminded of repeated references to a world that’s “cold,” “dark” and “black.” Specifically, these words are expressed by Fantine, Marius (when eulogizing Eponine, who dies in his arms) and Javert. Shafts of bright light illuminate portions of these dusky surroundings, which look almost like charcoal drawings come to life.
The combination comes to a dramatic climax during the famous barricade scene. When shots ring out between the protesters and the police, shafts of light seem to follow each bullet’s movement.
There is only a short time to catch a performance by this tour, which ends its Milwaukee run on Sunday. The next musical in the Broadway series is My Fair Lady on January 3-8, 2023.
Les Misérables continues at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, 929 N. Water St. For tickets, visit marcuscenter.org or call 414-373-7206. Masks are not required but encouraged.