To Love Another Person Is To See The Face of God
If you’re going to see one musical this year, this is it.
Intensely powerful and aesthetically astounding from Prologue to Finale, Les Misérables is easily the best Broadway production in Jacksonville in 2019. This classic tale is so masterfully performed that you’ll be moved to tears time and again.
Boubil & Schonberg’s Les Misérables opened Tuesday, January 22nd and runs through January 27, 2019 at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. Based Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, Les Misérables has been delighting audiences since its 1985 London debut and has experienced a revival in the past decade. A new generation of theatergoers will be delighted by Claude-Michel Schonberg’s powerful music and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. The production is directed by Lawrence Conner and James Powell with Original French text by Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel.
What can a musical seen by millions of theatergoers over 34 years possibly have to offer?
So, so much.
Whether you’ve read the book, seen the movies, and watched the Broadway version a dozen times or this is your first experience, you won’t be disappointed. The talent on stage is fabulous. Prepare to become emotionally invested as the music overwhelms your soul, drawing you to tears and physically manifesting as chills or a lump in your throat. You won’t be alone. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Set in 19th century France, Les Misérables is a timeless tale of love, loss, courage, redemption, revolution, and the undying strength of the human spirit. Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) is sentenced to years of hard labor for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving child. The musical begins when he’s released after 19 years of imprisonment by police officer Javert (Josh Davis). Instead of finding the freedom he dreams of he finds hatred and suspicion. Unable to obtain work or a place to stay, he’s tempted to a life of crime until he meet his savior, a clergyman who believes in him and saves him from re-imprisonment.
Valjean reinvents himself as a successful businessman and mayor. A poor young woman named Fantine (Mary Kate Moore) works in his factory, secretly sending money to the innkeeper caring for her illegitimate daughter. When this is revealed, chaos ensues and Fantine is dismissed. In order to pay her daughter’s expenses, she desperately sells her meager belongings, her hair, and her teeth. With nowhere else to turn and debts to pay, she becomes a prostitute.
One night, she refuses to work and a foul-tempered client abuses her. She strikes him and police officer Javert intervenes. Valjean rescues Fantine from a prison sentence and carries her to the hospital, where she begs him to care for her daughter following her impending death. Valjean is a man of his word. He rescues the girl, Cosette (Madeleine Guilbot/ Vivi Howard/ Jillian Butler), from the scheming innkeepers (Monte J. Howell and Olivia Dei Cicchi) and raises her as his own daughter while striving to stay one step ahead of the relentless Javert, who would like nothing better than to imprison Valjean once again for breaking his parole so many years before.
What follows is the impassioned intertwining of deeply complicated characters and timeless human struggles. Love, death, danger, deceit, perseverance, and deepset loyalty develop onstage against the backdrop of the deadly June Rebellion of 1832. You must see it for yourself to know how the story transpires, for to describe it cannot do it justice. My best attempt to translate the electric atmosphere into words is to reference one of its most iconic songs, “Do You Hear the People Sing?”
Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again! When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes!”
The talent was breathtaking. Nick Cartrell casted a powerful Valjean and his nemesis Javert was equally well portrayed by Josh Davis. Their struggle is one of Les Misérables most enduring plotlines. Both men believe they’re the hero and the audience can somehow sympathize with both powerful figures. Valjean wants nothing more than freedom and the chance to live his life after being unfairly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. Javert holds the law above all else and will uphold it at all costs. The men’s warm embrace at the Finale brought me to tears.
Cosette (Jillian Butler) and Marius’ (Patrick Rooney) love story was sweet and refreshing and brought some relief to the serious atmosphere. Yet one couldn’t help but cry for the ill-fated Eponine (Paige Smallwood) and her future that could never be.
Perhaps the most hilarious comic relief was provided by the Innkeeper (Monte J. Howell) and the Inkeeper’s Wife (Olivia Dei Cicchi). Though their characters were good-for-nothing- scoundrels, Howell and Dei Cicchi lightened the mood with their boisterous songs and playful antics. I loved them!
Projections by Fifty-Nine Productions brought the set to life and the sound quality was unreal. The audience could hear the bullets whizzing by their heads and lighting brought the battle scenes to life like you’ve never seen before. The set and image design by Matt Kinley was inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself. Costume design by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland was spot on. Rich in detail and stunning, the entire production was exquisite and believably transported theatergoers into 19th century France.
What could the theatermakers have improved? Absolutely nothing. Les Misérables at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts took my breath away. I’ve had the opportunity to see many musical productions in my lifetime, but I’ve never experienced something as emotionally powerful as this and I was far from alone. The crowd around me gasped and cried, becoming thoroughly invested in the lives, loves, and deaths of the characters on stage. Get a seat up close and let the music and songs sweep you away. There’s nothing else like it.
One note on content—Les Misérables is a drama about serious subject matter. Les Misérables is best suited for a mature audience. While there were children in the audience, I would not recommend it for anyone under 12. The death scenes are powerful and shocking (many beloved characters die, including a child), the bullets and strobe lighting for the battle scenes may be frightening, and Fantine’s fall into prostitution, her abuse by an angry customer, and her following death may be traumatic to younger viewers. There’s plenty of adult humor too, though nothing blatantly vulgar. My 14-year-old loved the musical. I’ll wait a few more years before sharing it with my younger children. There’s no rush.
Another note of importance—This musical is not about the French Revolution, despite popular belief. It takes place considerably after the Revolution. If you’d like a better understanding of what’s happing on stage and to sound particularly enlightened while chatting during intermission, read up on the June Rebellion of 1832 and the cultural climate that led to the bloodshed before you go to the theater.
A day later, I’m still teary-eyed and singing the ballads that make Les Misérables so powerful and well-loved across the globe. Watching the movie doesn’t do this story justice. Please, give yourself the gift of experiencing it live at least once in your lifetime. It’s truly an experience unlike any other. Les Misérables plays through Sunday at the Florida Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts, so grab your tickets while you can! There’s a reason this musical is so popular, and I promise it’s more than just hype. It’s gritty and real. It’s philosophical and inspiring. It’ll move you, change you, and make you cry.
Prepare to be enchanted.