Do you hear the people sing? That was the question echoing through Miller Auditorium over and over again on Tuesday night, as the national touring company of Les Miserables took their first bows in Kalamazoo. And for good reason too, as the 38-person cast of the production made these classic songs ring with new life. Right from the first downbeat, the show was one bombastic moment after another, from the ominous opening chords to the tension that continuously burns between paroled ex-convict, Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer, channeling role-originator Colm Wilkinson) and the officer who spends tireless decades pursuing him (Andrew Varela, taking the part of Javert with booming baritone gravitas). In the meantime, we get an against-all-odds love story, a stirring schoolboy uprising, a poignant relationship between a girl and her surrogate father, a poverty-stricken woman doing whatever it takes to provide for her child, a yearning tale of unrequited love and a pair of low-life con artists.
Considering that all of these characters live within the confines of a three-hour musical, it’s rather remarkable that they end up as developed and fully-realized as they do. Still, Les Mis has always been at its best when dealing directly with Valjean’s struggle for redemption and Javert’s refusal to see the good in him, and that remains true with this production. Lockyer’s dramatic tenor highs, in particular, are a perfect fit for Miller’s expansive acoustics, while Varela, despite singing with a relatively closed sound that occasionally makes him difficult to understand, embodies Javert’s black-and-white moral code perfectly, hitting the ball out of the park on his two big solo numbers.
Equally impressive are Genevieve LeClerc (Fantine) and Briana Carlson-Goodman (Eponine), both of whom deliver loud, emotive, theatre-filling vocal performances on their signature numbers (“I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own,” respectively). Where the recent movie version went for a more intimate approach with both songs, here, it’s all about the over-sized emotion of the piece. Both woman have contemporary Broadway-belting voices, and while their more modern sound sometimes clashes with the classical lean of the male leads, it’s hard to find fault with their performances.
Less stellar (and more classical) is Lauren Wiley, whose Cosette never really makes an impression onstage, either vocally or as part of the larger plot. To be fair though, I have begun to suspect that this ineffectual tendency has more to do with the way the part is written than with how singers perform it. Part of the problem is that Cosette, though she is arguably one of the two characters the show revolves around the most, is absent for the vast majority of both acts. Furthermore, unlike nearly every principal in the cast, Cosette has no signature, show-stopping solo number. And then there’s the issue of the romance with Marius (Devin Ilaw, in this production), a quick, love-at-first-sight affair that never really builds any emotional connection between the two characters. Again, all of these are shortcomings of the material and not of the actress herself, but Wiley doesn’t exactly rise above them.
Ilaw, on the other hand, feels blatantly miscast for about three-quarters of the show, his light tenor voice and Americanized inflection robbing the role of some of its passion during early numbers. That all gets flipped around, though, when he sings the post-climactic ballad, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” which quickly becomes the show’s rawest and most emotional moment. Phantoms of Ilaw’s lost friends appear around him, his voice cracking into a roar of grief as he questions why he was spared in their place and how he will carry on with his life now that all of them are gone. It’s a shame that Ilaw doesn’t bring the same stark emotion and realism to his every moment onstage, but this song, at least, leaves little doubt as to why he won the role.
Also on the subject of principals, Timothy Gulan and Shawna Hamic deserve a shout-out for their hilariously crude, satirically over-the-top performances as the scheming Thenardiers. Perhaps its a trick of the stage or of the thoroughly spontaneous feel the characters bring to a show that has been performed over 900 times, but suffice to say that Gulan and Hamic imbue these characters with every ounce of levity and comic relief that was missing from the film version. Where Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter (the actors who portrayed the same characters in the film) seemed to be consistently reaching for laughs, Gulan and Hamic find them naturally, and it’s a joy to watch.
Ultimately though, the biggest stars of this show are the more unsung heroes of the theatre. First is the stage and technical crew, who truly elevate Les Miserables from a long, heavy, sung-through musical into a visually resplendent stage spectacle. From explosions of gunpowder to intricate sets, from a projector-based backdrop that never looks anything less than real to a centerpiece scene where one character seems to levitate freely in the air, the technical wizardry of this production is jaw-dropping and is very nearly worth the price of admission on its own.
The second hero is the ensemble, who create a crisp, clear and full-bodied sound that is both sublimely visceral and technically faultless. It’s no surprise that the show’s biggest and best moments are the ones that get all or many of the company members onstage at once, from the skyscraping act-one finale of “One Day More” (every bit as perfect in the theatre as I hoped it would be) to the bittersweet, calm-before-the-storm nostalgia of “Drink With Me,” all the way to the thrilling call-to-arms that is “Do You Hear the People Sing?” By the time the latter finally received its end-of-show reprisal on Tuesday night, beginning with a ghostly offstage refrain and building into a triumphant and passionate encore, half the near-capacity crowd had tears in their eyes, and 100% of us were ready to leap to our feet as the company took their bows.
Is this Les Miserables perfect? No, but as I pointed out in my review of the film version, the show is flawed as is, and perfection is hard to come by. The best interpretations of this material, though, overcome the show’s shortcomings and deliver something that is both musically and thematically moving, and this version certainly fits that bill. With shows still to come once or twice or a day throughout the weekend (click here and scroll down for more information on show times and ticket information), Miller Auditorium will be ringing with these songs for awhile. So if you’ve got the money and you have a spare night sometime this week, go and immerse yourself in the Les Mis experience; you won’t regret it.