Les Misérables• June 20, 2023• Eccles Theater
Reviewed by Kevin Rolfe
Les Misérables, “The World’s Most Popular Musical” made its return to Utah at the Eccles Theater in downtown Salt Lake City. This show was originally announced as part of the Broadway at the Eccles 20/21 season. But as we all know, tours were stopped and theaters were closed during that period due to the global pandemic. So when the 22/23 season was announced, and Les Misérables was part of it, patrons lined up (figuratively, I know we don’t actually line up to buy tickets in person anymore) to buy tickets to this beloved musical. I must admit, I’ve been anticipating this show since it was announced and could not have been more thrilled to be inside the Eccles Theater on June 20 for opening night.
***This review contains mild to moderate spoilers. If you can wait “One Day More”, go to the show then come back and read the review. Otherwise, you have been warned. ***
When people ask me, “Kevin, what’s your favorite musical?” it’s almost impossible for me to answer. I usually narrow it down, but can never pick one. The interesting thing though, is whenever I’m asked, Les Mis is always one of the top musicals on the list. I’ve seen Les Misérables many times in both England and in The States. I’ve seen concert versions, regional productions such as Hale Center Theater, and even school editions. I love this show and any opportunity to see it, I’ll go. But for whatever reason, it has been quite some time since I’ve seen a production of Les Mis. My excitement to see it again was high, but also to see this production.
You see in 2009, this is not the production that you might be envisioning. If you’ve seen Les Mis in the past, you’ve most likely seen the staging of the original production. The production that has a turntable stage that for its time was groundbreaking and quite original. That is the only production I have seen. For the 25th Anniversary of Les Misérables, Producer Cameron Mackintosh brought forth a new vision for Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Tony Award-winning musical. This is the version that is being performed at Eccles Theater. I was so curious to see what was different. Would I like it? Would it be too hard to see one of my all-time favorite musicals performed with different staging? I couldn’t wait to find out.
Seeing Les Mis can be like seeing one of my favorite bands in concert. Not that the production is like a concert in any way. What I mean is, the music is so great and so familiar that when I hear one of those great songs begin, or a cast member starts to sing, I was excited to hear it in a way that I get excited to hear The Cure perform “Just Like Heaven” or JOSEPH sing “White Flag”. When the show began and the first lines, “Look down! Look down!” were sung, I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a sing-along. Because I could feel myself wanting to hum the melody or sing the lyrics. Don’t worry, I refrained. I sang in my heart and left the audible vocals to the professionals.
The music was still very familiar. Familiar but different. I understand that makes no sense. Let me try to explain. There were different orchestrations, some minor lyric changes, and newer interpretations of the songs than I hadn’t heard before. But it was still Les Mis. I found myself really enjoying the subtle but impactful adjustments. The music felt elevated and I was totally on board with what they had done.
The same goes for this cast. What a phenomenal cast. As I mentioned, Les Miserables is some people’s very favorite show. They’ve been listening to the music and going to productions for decades. It seems like there would be a lot of pressure to perform a musical of this caliber because so many people already have in their minds how they want it to sound and look. I was just so impressed with the way this cast interpreted the show. I think that might be the theme of this entire review. There was enough of a nod to the original, but interesting new takes on the characters to make it feel fresh for a modern-day audience.
Nick Cartell took on the responsibility of playing the protagonist, Jean Valjean. His range as an actor matched the range of his voice. His voice soared throughout Eccles Theater, nailing every high note in a style all his own. I don’t think I have ever heard someone play Valjean this way. The show takes place over the span of Jean Valjean’s adult life. Cartell played the old Valjean as convincingly as he did the angry freshly released from prison Valjean. His voice seemed to match the years in a very authentic way.
While much of his vocalization had a somewhat modern feel, he sang “Bring Him Home” just the way you want to hear it. It was as good a performance of that song as I’ve ever heard. Following that song was the longest and loudest ovation of the night. I don’t know if there was a dry eye in the theater. Jean Valjean has to be one of the most difficult roles to play in musical theater. Nick Cartel was so natural he almost made it seem effortless.
Preston Truman Boyd, who played the role of Inspector Javert, gave us this character as you would expect from Javert, true to form. You hate him, but you feel for him, but then you hate him, then you just feel bad for him and his cold black heart. Boyd takes us on that journey. His voice was incredible. Hitting the low notes with extreme power like that isn’t easy. There was a special chemistry between Nick Cartell and Preston Truman Boyd that made its way to their characters. When they were on stage together it was impossible to look away. Boyd’s performance of “Stars” was the reason why you go to the theater.
My one small gripe (and it has nothing to do with Preston), is Eccles Theater has lights on their ceiling that look like a starry evening. When they opened this theater Brian Stokes Mitchell was one of the performers. He sang “Stars” and while he did, they turned those starry lights on. It was an amazing visual. I was really hoping they would do that here. But they didn’t. And I’m disappointed about it! However, it didn’t ruin what Preston Truman Boyd was doing on stage. He was excellent.
I don’t say this lightly. Haley Dortch is the best Fantine I have ever seen. Hands down. Her voice needs to be heard by all! Spoiler here, but when Fantine dies, I was upset. But this time because we weren’t going to be hearing Dortch perform again. She acted the part well, bringing us through Fantine’s tragic story with heart. I have never heard “I Dreamed A Dream” sung so well. If you’re a Les Misérables fan, you’ve heard the song a million times. I know I have. I’ve even heard Neil Diamond sing it. It’s been sung that many times. But not like this. Not at all like this.
My heart ached for Fantine, and everything else that was happening around me, the guy opening his candy at the worst possible time, the lady telling her daughter what was going on in the show, or the cell phone going off even though we were told 20 minutes prior to silence our phones, did not matter. There was just this magnificent voice and performance.
When Fantine is on her deathbed and she’s singing to Valjean about caring for her daughter Cozette. Her final words are, “And tell Cozette I love her and I’ll see her when I wake.” “Wake” is a held note that is delivered so softly as Fantine leaves this world. Haley Dortch and that gorgeous note pierced through the room. I’m tempted to go back and see this show again, just for her.
This entire cast was amazing from top to bottom. From Henry Kirk as Gavroche to Devon Archer as Enjolras, this cast continued to impress more and more as the show progressed. Speaking of Enjolras, for some reason I always forget how much I love that character. When we get to the point of the show when “Red and Black” is performed, I’m quickly reminded of how massive that role is for how short of a time he’s on stage. Christina Rose Hall and Ciaran Bowling were hilarious as the Thénardiers. I think those two characters can be overplayed sometimes. But Hall and Bowling played them just right, leaving space within the show to make their time on stage that much more amusing. The Thénardiers are the bulk of the comic relief in this heavy musical. But Thénardier is also quite sinister. Its not easy to be sinister and hilarious at the same time. I’m happy with the balance Bowling struck.
Addie Morales and Gregory Lee Rodriquez were both very strong as Cozette and Marius. If I’m honest, those characters are the ones I’m the least interested in throughout the show. They are necessary, of course, but maybe because they’re the least “Misérables” I have less time for them. Or because many of the past times I’ve seen Les Mis, the casting for these characters hasn’t been my favorite. Morales and Rodriguez drew me into their story and both gave solid performances.
I think Eponine is a favorite of so many because they can relate to her story. It’s its own kind of tragedy. I’ve seen Sutton Foster, Lea Michelle, and other Broadway stars play the role of Eponine. I would place Christine Heesun Hwang’s performance right up with theirs. She brought a great interpretation of the role and I loved watching the bits of business she would do throughout the stage even when she wasn’t a featured player.
Finally, I can’t say enough about the staging of this production. As I mentioned, the original staging is so familiar with its groundbreaking and innovative set design, lighting, and blocking. I mentioned the turntable stage. That didn’t exist in the show. For about thirty seconds it threw me off because I was ready for the stage to move. Just out of memory, when Valjean sings this line, the stage moves. But once it was clear that there was no turntable stage, I knew the entire staging was going to be different. And it was. There were nods to the original. When people died, they would be illuminated with a bright white light. And that remained in this production.
If you remember in the original when the students are killed in the final battle, they die in slow motion. A very innovative thing at that time. I was curious if that was what would happen in this production. How could they not? It’s such an iconic part of this musical. I’ll tell you, they don’t do that. They don’t die in slow motion. But to keep from completely spoiling it, I will refrain from mentioning what actually happens. What I will say is it’s as impactful and visually stunning as what was done before. That entire scene is incredibly blocked.
This and so many other scenes were like this. I wondered, how will they do this scene differently, and each time they found a creative way to make it new and amazing. I found it thrilling to be listening to such familiar music yet watching it staged in a completely different way. The “new” staging of Les Misérables totally enhanced the show.
A familiar story, with familiar music, with fresh and innovative staging made for a wonderful night at Eccles Theater. Many revivals have attempted to do what Les Mis pulled off with this newly staged version. Some have even made their way here to Utah. Some even by the same composers. But I haven’t seen a revival this well done in ages. It was the most enjoyable theatrical experience I’ve had in a long time.
Les Misèrables runs at the Eccles Theater through July 2. Tickets are pretty sold out but there is the poss of tickets being released daily. Click here to look for tickets.