SALT LAKE CITY — Cameron Mackintosh presents a brand new 25th anniversary production of Boubil & Schönberg’s legendary musical, Les Misérables. The title has been a major force in musical theatre over the past quarter of a century. Admittedly, I’ve not been one willing to shell out $90 to attend a production of Les Mis in the past. Sure there are cheaper seats north of the mezzanine, but when a big title like this comes to town settling for not seeing the acting is like settling for just listening to the cast recording.
The story is epic. Jean Valjean is released from prison after having served half a life in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Condemned to a life of little pay and respect because of the mark of thief he carries, he takes on another identity, fleeing from the police, to make a life for him built on the love and forgiveness shown to him in the first 10 minutes on stage. Filled with love, politics, revolution and redemption, bringing this story to the stage was no easy task. Yet the talents of Boubil and Schönberg introduced the world to a number of Broadway standards not soon to be forgotten: “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” among others. This cast is musically stacked and repeatedly meets the daunting task of doing these songs justice. The harmonies fill the Capitol Theatre easily.
Though it’s a relatively small venue. When Wicked came through a few years back a couple of semi trucks worth of the show had weren’t able to make it into the theatre. If Les Misérables had to cut a few scenic elements as well it certainly wasn’t noticed. Set designer Matt Kinley is truly a magician. Aside from the massive tenements, barricade, and Thenardier inn, what shines out more than any other element in this production are Kinley’s backlit projections. Inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, Kinley has sparked added life into the stage. There was one moment when the scene shifts from the streets to the sewers and as the projections shifted upwards an audible gasp of excitement rippled through the crowd. Later on as Valjean is carrying Marius through the tunnels the projections moved to follow each step Valjean takes.
Vocally, this production was stunning. Ron Sharpe is transformative in his performance as Jean Valjean. Andrew Varela provided a strong and sympathetic antagonist in Javert. Betsy Morgan’s “I Dreamed a Dream” as Fantine was incredibly revealing to her character (the pacing of the production didn’t often provide for much focused character development, but this was one instance I appreciated). Couple with that Chasten Harmon’s Eponine singing “On My Own” and there is little doubt why Les Misérables can carry itself by the music alone.
Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have done brilliant work with this 25th anniversary production. Their work with this solid team of performers and designers brings a tone of modernity and approachability to this classic text. The three-hour running time almost coasts along with the pace they’ve brought. Musically and visually the production was brilliant. I only wish that a few more glimpses into the actual characters were prevalent throughout. For example, when Jenny Latimer, as Cozette, comes running out to see Marius only to quickly repent and hide her excitement, I laughed. What a lovely and small moment that almost let me forget the speed at which the plot was clipping along.
Touring productions through Salt Lake are often a hit or miss. They’re some of the more expensive tickets in the valley. Going to the theater does require more than a pass by the cineplex. I’m not sure if audience demand will justify the costs of larger productions to come through the valley. Is it worth sitting in the last balcony seats in order to hear the next Broadway star? If you really want the best glimpse of the touring show reach deep into your pockets for the Zone A seats. If Utah audiences can flock to more productions like they have for Les Misérables, I think I can be excited for what might happen to Salt Lake City theater.
I’ve certainly not been more impressed by a touring show. It’s a fantastic night out. Those of you with tickets, enjoy them. Everyone else, time to get in line for next season.
Bonus: Check out UTBA’s exclusive interview with Jenny Latimer, tour cast member and Utah native.