The new touring production of Les Misérables is magnificent. Not only are the great songs great again, but the production itself is gorgeous, with sets based on Victor Hugo's paintings. Visually, the show is a knockout. I won't ruin the gaspable moments for you, but guaranteed you'll gasp — wait for the tunnel, wait for the bridge. (If you don't know Hugo's paintings — and it seems hardly anybody does — Google the images before you go.)
Another tip: Leave yourself enough time to read the synopsis in the program (unless you can't bear spoilers). Like most 19th-century novels (Hugo wrote Les Misérables in 1862), the book has lots of complicated, intertwined plots and about a zillion characters, covering many years and a variety of love affairs and political events. And like an old-fashioned, monumental novel, the show — miraculously managing to condense 1,200 pages into less than three hours — brilliantly alternates comedy and tragedy. You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll leave humming. It even has a prologue before the title page scene. And, like any great 19th-century novel, it has rich and tender death scenes.
The basics of the story focus on Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell), imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Once he is out, a kind bishop takes pity on him, but Valjean, embittered that "the world has always hated me," steals silver from him and thus becomes an outlaw again; he is pursued relentlessly by a policeman named Javert (Josh Davis).
Meanwhile, there is a young woman whose illegitimate daughter, Cosette, has been put into the care of a cruel and greedy couple, the Thenardiers (Allison Guinn and J Anthony Crane), who provide both horror (in the vicious song "Dog Eats Dog") and comic relief ("Master of the House"). Valjean promises to rescue the little girl. Once Cosette (Jillian Butler) grows up, Marius (Joshua Grosso) will fall in love with her, unaware that Éponine (Phoenix Best) loves him (her song "On My Own" is a beauty).
Meanwhile, there is a student revolution underway, led by Enjolras (Nicholas Edwards in fine voice), who leads the company on the barricades in "The People's Song" with these stirring lyrics:
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!
(Several young men, walking down Locust Street after the show let out, were lustily singing this at the top of their lungs.)
The song guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye is Valjean's "Bring Him Home," and Cartell's rendition of it is lovely and tender — and its reprise is even more moving. (Notice how I'm sidestepping plot points. You're welcome.)
Javert's "Stars" provides necessary complexity to a character who would otherwise be merely an obsessed villain, and Davis' big baritone gives it big, existential space.
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with massive kudos due to all the designers — set, lighting, sound, projections — the show manages to do what few stage shows are able to: battle scenes.
And just in case the musical isn't enough Les Mis for you, PBS has just announced a new six-part dramatic adaptation of the novel starring Dominic West as Jean Valjean and David Oyelow as Javert. An embarrassment of riches.