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ARSENEAU: ‘Les Miserables’ brings 19th-century France to Milwaukee

The tour of

Photo by Matthew Murphy

The tour of "Les Miserables" will be at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee until April 1st.

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The U.S. Tour of “Les Miserables” plays at the Marcus Center in Milwaukee this week from Tuesday, March 26, to Sunday, April 1.

Between the stage production and the 2012 Oscar-winning movie, Les Miserables has been widely viewed by 130 million people across the globe and is considered the most popular musical in the world. It is a personal favorite of many and a timeless classic, and I therefore had very high expectations going in.

From the instant the orchestra played the first notes of the overture, the crowd began loudly cheering and clapping. The energy in the room was ecstatic, and from that point on I knew I was in for a great show.

The visuals absolutely blew me away — the sets, lighting, special effects, projections, fog and truly everything swallowed the audience into the world of 19th-century, post-revolutionary France.

After several production changes were made to the show in the late 2000s by theatrical producer Cameron Mackintosh and designer Matt Kinley, the show’s original score is now paired with moving scenery projections and contemporary lighting and set designs to enhance the original scenes imagined by “Les Miserables” author Victor Hugo.

As soon as the curtain opened on the beginning of “Prologue,” revealing dark, ominous lighting and thick fog as prisoners in chains paddled monotonously, I was fully engaged.

The show revolves around the story of ex-fugitive Jean Valjean and relentless police inspector Javert, meaning that those playing the men must be incredibly strong actors and singers. And when it came to the pair performing in this show, both were truly fantastic.

Nick Cartell, playing Valjean, was a great actor with an incredibly impressive voice, at points belting to fill the entire theater and at others displaying a strong falsetto in the octave of the women. His powerful tenor voice was best exemplified in Valjean’s iconic solo at the barricade, “Bring Him Home.”

As for understudy Steve Czarnecki playing Javert, not only did the actor have an incredible voice but exhibited phenomenal acting. The audience was able to witness his change from a stoic, dutiful inspector to an overly obsessed officer on a quest to stop a petty criminal to an entirely broken man, shredded to pieces by his own questioning of his strict black-and-white moral beliefs. Both he and Cartell displayed incredible portrayals of Javert and Valjean’s character development as many the years pass.

The leading ladies of “Les Miserables” also made their marks, with the actresses playing Fantine, Cosette and Eponine all having extraordinarily powerful voices and the ability to bring the audience to tears.

Mary Kate Moore’s Fantine had a sweet, collected innocence about her that gradually broke down with emotion as she progressed in her solo “I Dreamed a Dream,” lamenting the loss of her desired life. Jillian Butler’s gentle, bright tone similarly gave the character of Cosette a young and naïve nature as she fell in love for the first time.

Meanwhile, Emily Bautista as Eponine — a character who is confident, outgoing and comfortable holding her own on the streets — displayed an infatuation with her friend Marius through an almost pushy flirtation, with her eventual recognition of her unrequited love being exemplified in the sorrowful “On My Own.” With Eponine being my favorite character in all of musical theater, I was a little pickier and personally would have liked to see a little more sadness in Bautista’s acting. Nonetheless, Bautista, Butler and Moore all ultimately helped to carry the show.

The students of the revolution — led by Matt Shingledecker’s passionate Enjolras and Robert Ariza’s love-stricken Marius — struck a believable balance between being a revolutionary group of brave, idealistic young men and fearful, unsure circle of boys. After a heart-wrenching battle sequence, each of the young men lay dead, sprawled across the barricade, in near silence — a moment that was one of the show’s most powerful.

Amongst all the tragedy and heartbreak of the show, Monsieur and Madame Thenardier — the shameless thieving inn-keepers, played by J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn — provided occasional, dark-comedic relief. The two, like the revolutionaries, did well to balance serious moments with playful escapes from the pains of everyday life.

While I went into the show with favorite scenes and songs — including “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “One Day More,” “On My Own” and “A Little Fall of Rain” — this production added a few more, with the beautiful “Drink With Me to Days Gone By” being particularly memorable.

A gentle ballad sung by the barricade dwellers after the first night of fighting, the true extent of “Drink With Me” occurred to me during its portrayal during the show: Eponine had just become the first casualty of the revolution, and the severity of what the students have pledged themselves to was realized by the young men and women behind the barricade.

It was a weary ballad, filled with heavy emotions, hugs and teary smiles as they remembered the past and acknowledged that many of them will not live to see another night. The leader of the song was Jonah Mussolino’s Gavroche, a spunky young boy who partook in the revolution and eventually gave his life for the cause — a death that inspired the rest to follow and is one of the events that came to break Javert.

Filled with heartbreak, suffering, ideals and love, “Les Miserables” tells a story of humanity. The U.S. Touring production will be at the Marcus Center only until Sunday before heading to Madison, Wisconsin, meaning fans of the show and newcomers alike should take the opportunity to see the incredible production while it’s still here.

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