MILWAUKEE — Do you hear the people sing? It may be the cast of “Les Miserables” at the Marcus Performing Arts Center, or perhaps it’s an audience in an uproar of applause.
Certainly, Tuesday night’s standing ovation was well-deserved.
“Les Mis” opened the Marcus Center’s 2022-23 Broadway season with a bang worthy of starting a revolution. From vocals that reigned supreme all night, to eye-opening technical elements, this is a show that cannot be missed while it's in town.
The show opens with Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) at sea with fellow French prisoners. He’s been sentenced to 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. The prologue, which frankly I had never given much thought to in the grand scheme of “Les Mis,” was jaw-dropping in and of itself. The technical elements (Matt Kinley), which transformed the stage into a rocky boat on a stormy night, were captivating.
Cartell delivered a strong and stellar performance from the get-go, not wavering for the entirety of the nearly three hour long, operatic musical. The opening number, full of rage, fear and heartbreak, perfectly set the stage for the turbulent years to follow.
Valjean is let out on parole, but instantly breaks it and remains on the run from police for the rest of his days. He manages to escape Javert (Hayden Tee), the lead policeman chasing him, time and time again.
That’s when he meets Fantine (Haley Dortch). Dortch gave a goosebump-inducing rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” as she tells her story of abuse and despair, fighting for her daughter Cosette even in the trenches of life.
I thought after Dortch’s tear-jerking performance, the show had certainly peaked. Yet, every song and performer maintained the raw, unparalleled talent Dortch set the bar with.
On her deathbed, Valjean vows to Fantine he will find and care for her daughter Cosette. She’s staying with Thenardier (Matt Crowle) and his wife (Christina Rose Hall), who are thrilled to release her to a total stranger, so long as he’s willing to pay a price. Crowle and Hall serve as perfect comedic relief. Sure, the characters they play certainly aren’t model citizens, but the duo played off one another’s vibrant, flamboyant energy to get the crowd laughing even after the most heart-wrenching of scenes.
Valjean instantly becomes a loving and devoted father to a young Cosette (Cora Jane Messer and Hazel Vogel), who portrays the sweetest little girl I’ve yet to see on a Broadway-level stage.
Sadly, audiences don’t get to soak in her daydreaming, innocent songs for long, as Cosette grows up just a few scenes later, but Addie Morales, who plays an adult Cosette, managed to perfectly blend a maturity to the role while maintaining the character’s sweet wanderlust. Her voice, light and airy, filled Uihlein Hall with hope and love the moment she opened her mouth. Watching Cosette fall in love with Marius (Gregory Lee Rodriguez) is the romantic whirlwind you can only dream up in fairytales. The duo played off one another with ease and grace.
Of course, what would a romantic plot be without a love triangle (“A Heart Full of Love”)? Christine Heesun Hwang, who plays Eponine — Marius’ best friend who’s secretly in love with him — was able to pack nearly every human emotion into her short-lived time on stage. She’s hopelessly in love, relentlessly royal, heartbroken, feisty and free. I cannot imagine a more perfectly cast (Felicia Rudolph and Merri Sugarman) Eponine than Hwang. Hwang’s rendition of “On My Own” is nothing short of perfection, and her duet with Rodriguez (“A Little Fall of Rain”), as she dies a very believable death, is as beautiful as it is sad.
Eponine is attributed as the first death of the Revolution after dying in the barricade. During the war-torn scenes, the set, lighting (Paule Constable) and sound (Mick Potter) again rose to the occasion of the stellar performers, taking the audience as close as possible to being in a war zone, without actually being there.
After a barricade massacre, Valjean is able to save Marius, and bring him back to Cosette. Rodriguez gave a heart-stopping, perfectly pitched performance in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” as he works through his survivors’ guilt. Valjean soon tells his new son-in-law his story of life on the run, making him swear to protect his daughter from his turbulent past in a moving performance, where he appears to be exhausted from life itself, ready for the next chapter, as he leaves to continue life on the run.
Unbeknownst to him, Javert is dead. Tee managed to press forward with an angry, righteous policeman throughout the entire show, yet end his time on stage with an emotional rollercoaster while he sang “Soliloquy,” falling to his death. Tee left it all on the stage.
As the show wraps, Cosette and Marius rush to Valjean’s side as he dies. Morales gives a convincing performance of a strong, yet grieving, daughter, as Valjean goes to the other side, meeting those who had gone before him, including Eponine and Fantine. While there was some sadness as a young couple watched their father die, Cartell portrayed a peaceful, even-keeled relief as he passed on. The audience was blessed with this finale, as everyone came back one more time, melding together for a flawless ensemble goodbye.
I do not have enough good things to say about this musical. It’s perfectly cast, stunningly set, beautifully sung, provides the perfect combination of emotions and left me wanting to watch it again and again. Yes, even after three hours.
The operatic musical runs at the Marcus Center through Dec. 4. Get ticket information, here.