Nearly 40 years since the Kennedy Center hosted its pre-Broadway run, Les Misérables (★★★★☆) returns to the Opera House, as crowd-pleasing as ever, in a handsome touring production of the Tony-nominated Broadway revival staged by directors James Powell and Laurence Connor.
The fanbase was out in force on opening night. Packed with busloads of school and tour groups, the audience cheered like Swifties seated front row, showering ovations upon Jean Valjean, Javert, Éponine, Fantine, Thénardiers, and that scamp Gavroche, who earned every bit of applause directed his way.
Boasting characters and songs so ingrained in pop culture that not only the fans, but even Les Miz virgins like myself, can always hear what’s coming, this world-conquering musical is too much of a known commodity to offer much in the realms of surprise or enlightenment.
But does the sweeping score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer still evoke grandiose dreams of romance and rebellion? Does Cameron Mackintosh’s spectacular production, reimagined for the digital age, wield the power to enthrall hearts for “One Day More”?
The production certainly enthralls in its visual storytelling, with vivid effects and illusions, and design inspired by the moody Symbolist paintings of Les Misérables novelist Victor Hugo.
Though the intricate sets by Matt Kinley, atmospheric lighting by Paule Constable, projections by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions, and general composition more often call to mind the familiar work of Romanticists and Impressionists.
A tableau of laborers in a field resembles an oil painting come to life, just one image transporting us to early 19th-century France, where ex-convict Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) first runs afoul of prison guard Javert (Preston Truman Boyd). Javert’s decades-long pursuit of Jean, a crusade pitting the not-always-just justice system against a petty thief set on self-rehabilitation, resonates as a nuanced conflict between men of different mentalities and class.
By contrast, the parallel but also intertwined stories of waifs Éponine (Christine Heesun Hwang) and Cosette (Addie Morales), both in love with student rebel Marius (Gregory Lee Rodriguez), register as sincere and sweet though less compelling.
The social and political movement that Marius, his comrade Enjolras (Devin Archer), and their compatriots stir into a second-act armed uprising feels even more like mere background to the main event, Jean Valjean vs. Javert, a showdown that’s settled in song.
Cartell and Boyd are well-matched adversaries, the former smoothly scaling the heights of Jean’s high-pitched pleas in “Soliloquy” and “Bring Him Home,” while the latter’s sonorous baritone lends gravity and gusto to Javert’s fixation on this one particular ex-con.
The two might differ in their diction — Cartell’s clipped enunciation occasionally distracts from his glorious tenor wails, as opposed to Boyd, who sacrifices not a scintilla of a syllable to any slackness — but both achieve a meaty characterization that doesn’t just rely on the hit songs.
The same can’t be said for Haley Dortch’s Fantine, who might dream a dream of a less sibilant microphone. As those thieving Thénardiers, Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall create outstanding figures of amusement and intrigue, greatly abetted by the colorful costuming, wigs, and makeup.
Drably dressed but aglow with unrequited ardor, Hwang’s well-sung Éponine emerges as the point in the show’s triangle of young lovers, and Henry Kirk, playing wily street urchin Gavroche (alternating performances feature Milo Maharlika in the role), emerges as perhaps the finest child actor I’ve seen on a D.C. stage in so substantial a role.
Bravo to Mr. Kirk, and to the entire energetic company keeping Les Miz fans’ hearts full of love and song for another tour more.
Les Misérables runs through April 29 in the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $69 to $225. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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