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Saturday, April 20, 2024
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(From L to R) Preston Truman Boyd as Javert & Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables."

‘Les Misérables’ remains a revolutionary, timeless classic

The “Les Misérables” North American Tour made a dazzling stop at the Overture Center in Madison from Feb. 14-18.

Content warning: This story contains information about suicide.

This review contains spoilers for “Les Misérables.” 

The “Les Misérables” North American Tour took the Overture Center by storm Wednesday night at its opening show for a Feb. 14-18 stop in Madison. 

“Les Misérables” is a sung-through musical with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil. With well-known classics like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Bring Him Home” and “One Day More,” “Les Misérables” is a must-see show for theater lovers. 

Based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel of the same name, “Les Misérables” tells the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean and his desire for redemption in 19th-century France. Throughout most of the musical, Valjean is pursued by a police inspector named Javert who refuses to let him escape justice.  

“Les Misérables” opens with a 14-minute prologue that sets the stage for the rest of the nearly three-hour-long show. “Les Misérables” isn’t a show you want to arrive late to — if you're not in your seats for the opening curtain, expect to be held at the doors by ushers until the start of act one. 

The show begins in 1815 France as Valjean is finally granted parole after being condemned to 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Valjean is forced to be an outcast, untrusted by others due to his yellow parole papers. Only the Bishop of Digne welcomes Valjean into his home without a second thought, a kind action Valjean repays him for by stealing his precious silver in the night. Despite betraying the Bishop’s trust, he forgives Valjean. The only thing the Bishop asks in return is for Valjean to use the silver to live as an honest man. 

Vowing not to take this second chance for granted, Valjean proclaims, “I’ll escape now from that world/from the world of Jean Valjean/Jean Valjean is nothing now/another story must begin” as he tears his parole papers, symbolizing the start of his new life. 

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Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean in "Les Misérables." 

Nick Cartell stars in the role of Valjean. With an impressive vocal range, Cartell makes Valjean’s powerful belts and soft falsettos sound like a walk in the park, which any musical theater enthusiast knows is no easy feat. 

Having seen this same tour in December 2022 in Milwaukee, it’s always thrilling to see what different performers will bring to these well-known roles. While Cartell remained impressive in both performances and was my personal favorite portrayal of Valjean to date, Preston Truman Boyd’s performance as Javert was unlike any other, standing out from prior actors I have seen in the same role. 

Javet is arguably the most complex character in the musical as he uniquely contrasts Valjean, their dynamic being the perfect example of foil characters. Valjean believes people can change and do so for the better. He is merciful and good despite past sins. Javert, however, believes in justice above all. To him, there is only right and wrong, black and white. 

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Boyd took a fascinating approach to portraying Javert which I have not yet seen on this tour. Javert’s “Soliloquy” in act two can make or break an actor’s performance in this role, and Boyd didn’t disappoint. 

Javert spends the entire play chasing Valjean, convinced that people can’t change for the better. At every intersection of the two, Valjean proves Javert’s preconceived notions wrong. After breaking his parole, Valjean adopts an orphaned child, saves Marius from the barricade and even spares Javert’s life when given the opportunity to kill him. 

In Boyd’s performance of Javert’s “Soliloquy,” the audience sees a frantic Javert unraveling before them as he realizes everything he believed was wrong. Boyd’s performance highlighted Javert’s internal conflict in a raw, gut-wrenching fashion that shook me to my core. 

Boyd portrayed Javert’s final moments before his suicide with an almost manic sense of urgency as he questions everything he has ever known. Echoing Valjean’s “Soliloquy,” Javert’s final words start with, “I’ll escape now from that world/from the world of Jean Valjean.” Unlike in Valjean’s “Soliloquy,” Javert chooses to take his own life instead of beginning another story. With the same motif that begins Valjean’s new life, Javert ends his, his final words being “there is nowhere I can turn/there is no way to go on.” 

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Preston Truman Boyd as Javert in "Les Misérables."

The staging and set design for “Les Misérables” were as impressive as the performances. With an intricate set made of moving pieces, purposeful lighting and innovative use of a visual screen to further supplement the physical set, it’s hard not to feel like you have teleported into 19th-century France. 

Set pieces and actors both moved with purpose. The barricade scenes in particular are quite spectacular as the audience sees the revolutionary students fight for a better France from behind the barricade. You cannot see the French soldiers they are fighting, only flashes of light accompanied by gunshots and smoke. 

As far as creativity goes, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” has one of the most moving stagings. After all the students but Marius perish at the barricade, Marius sings a somber ballad on the stage alone surrounded by lit candles in the place where his friends used to meet. At the climax of the song, the ghosts of his friends raise the candles like glasses before blowing them out, mirroring scenes earlier in the play where they would meet and drink together as they planned their now failed revolution. It is evident that a lot of love and consideration went into the production and staging of this tour as scenes like “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” never fail to evoke emotion. 

“Les Misérables” is a brilliant show, though it is not for the faint of heart. While I knew what I was walking into, I couldn’t help but chuckle when one theater-goer said he felt like the show could’ve been a half-hour shorter during the standing ovation. I mean, what could be more fitting than a three-hour musical to tell a 1462-page story? After all, Hugo’s novel isn’t nicknamed “the brick” for just any reason. 

“Les Misérables” ran from Feb. 14-18 at the Overture Center for the Arts. Upcoming tour dates at other locations can be found at https://us-tour.lesmis.com/.  

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Anna Kleiber

Anna Kleiber is an arts editor for The Daily Cardinal. She also reports on state politics and campus news. Follow her on Twitter at @annakleiber03.


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