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'Les Miserables,' the Musical Adaptation of Victor Hugo's Novel About Perverted Justice, is Back at Playhouse Square 

click to enlarge stage-photo_by_matthew_murphy.jpg

Photo by Matthew Murphy

If you thought "crimes of necessity," such as stealing bread to feed your starving family, were only punished centuries ago, you clearly need to think again. These days, the new America we live in relishes the opportunity to punish families from other countries that are escaping torture and death by tearing those desperate folks apart from their children.

Since this review is being written a couple days before the mid-term elections on Nov. 6, it's not clear whether voters have decided to raise their voices against the immoral immigration policies (and other vile initiatives) of the Trump administration. In any case, the argument against punishing crimes of necessity is still the strongest theme in the touring production of Les Miserables, now at Playhouse Square.

As originally written by Victor Hugo in the novel set in 19th century France, Jean Valjean stole that loaf of bread, spent 18 years in prison, and is on parole with the dreaded "yellow passport" that makes it virtually impossible for him to find work. (Kind of similar to the states here that don't allow ex-prisoners to vote.) But he is befriended by a bishop who rescues him from the police.

Once on his own, Valjean tears up his yellow badge of infamy and, years later, is free to become a respected member of society as a factory owner and mayor of his town. But he's still being hunted by Inspector Javert, who doesn't let little distractions such as the French Revolution get in his way of persecuting and prosecuting his primary target.

This is a magnificent production, featuring dark and foreboding artistic backdrops inspired by Hugo's paintings, awesome 3-D projections and some notable performances. But there are also a couple egregiously over-played bits that dampen the overall effect.

In the key role of Valjean, Nick Cartell does a bang-up job of portraying his character in the early stages. Long-haired and disheveled, his Valjean in the pre-respectable days is urgent and startling. After the passage of time, Cartell sings beautifully. His "Bring Him Home" is lovely, but doesn't attain the emotional heights reached by Stephen Mitchell Brown in the Great Lakes production of Les Miz. And as good as Cartell is, he doesn't quite have the immense nobility and heft that one has seen from Valjeans in the past.

Is it fair to compare the performance of a character such as Valjean to others who have sung the iconic role at Playhouse Square and on other stages in the past? Well, sure it is. Indeed, the repeated visits of this touring show to Cleveland invite comparisons.

And here's an entirely positive one: Josh Davis crafts a Javert that will live in your nightmares. As lighted by Paule Constable, Davis' features appear to be chiseled roughly out of granite, while his focus on his duty is as inflexible and indomitable as ever. Never has this man's torment, the pull between what he owes his God and his allegiance to the state, been performed so exquisitely. Plus, Davis finds nuance in his spotlight songs "Stars" and the "Soliloquy" that culminates in his suicide.

Equally fine are the women who swirl around and through Javert's life. Mary Kate Moore as the doomed single mom Fantine delivers a lovely "I Dreamed a Dream," and makes her early death a sad and tender moment. And Jillian Butler, who plays her daughter Cosette later as an adult, creates a charming duo with the love-struck student rebel Marius (a most amusing and endearing Joshua Grosso).

A particular standout in this company is Paige Smallwood, who is Eponine, the daughter of the skeezy innkeepers and free-floating felons, the Thenardiers. Eponine is also enamored of Marius, and her song "On My Own" as sung by Smallwood is a quiet gem.

All that good work is somewhat tarnished by the two actors who play the Thenardiers. The scenes featuring these two lowlifes are usually the brightest moments of relief from the tragedies that abound. But J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn have taken what once were actual characters and turned them into slapstick buffoons, pulling out any cheap schtick that will get a giggle from the audience.

Indeed, their entire first scene when they bellow the words to "Master of the House" is completely (and not amusingly) over the top, with every actor on stage trying to out-gross everyone else. It's as if directors Laurence Connor and James Powell went out for coffee when this mess was staged. But probably, it's a symptom of a scene sliding off the rails in a show that's tromping through its second year of touring, with the tour director (if there is one) or stage manager not willing to try to rein in the troops.

Fortunately, the rest of this latest Les Miz doesn't suffer from that insidious touring syndrome, leaving the spine-tingling moments — the flag march in "One Day More" at the end of Act 1 and the poignancy of the tragic aftermath in "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"— fully intact.

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