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One Day More from Les Misérables.Matthew Murphy/Handout

Critic’s Pick

Title: Les Misérables

Book and Music by: Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg

Lyrics by: Herbert Kretzmer

Directors: Laurence Connor and James Powell

Actors: Nick Cartell, Preston Truman Boyd, Haley Dortch, Matt Crowle, Victoria Huston-Elem, Devin Archer, Mya Rena Hunter, Jake David Smith, Delaney Guyer

Company: Mirvish Productions

Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre

City: Toronto

Year: To June 1, 2024

Misery loves company. That’s why I couldn’t see the latest touring version of Les Misérables, now at the Princess of Wales Theatre, without bringing along my teenage daughter. Plus, I knew I’d be viewing it through the thick lens of many Les Mis productions past, and I needed a fresh pair of eyes that would be watching it for the first time.

Although she’s seen plenty of big musicals, from Hamilton to Cats, somehow this venerable blockbuster wasn’t on her Gen Z radar. So to hear her take on its beloved adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, a story she’d never encountered before, was a succinct reminder of just how bleak it is.

“It’s depressing,” she told me frankly. “But then I guess the title says it all.” Indeed. The hero Jean Valjean serves 19 years of hard labour for stealing bread to feed a hungry child. The factory worker Fantine is slut-shamed out of her job and pushed into prostitution so she can support her little girl. The girl, Cosette, is abused by her greedy guardians, the Thénardiers. And that’s all just early in the first act.

The Act 2 climax is a failed people’s revolution that ends with the bodies of idealistic students and brave peasants piled behind the barricades. When I suggested a parallel between that historical event – the June Rebellion of 1832 – and more recent examples of uprisings brutally suppressed by the state, she sighed. “I guess it’s always been that way,” she said. Yes, sadly, one of the reasons that Hugo’s tale remains timeless.

So. Much. Misery. And yet – as we both agreed – brilliantly rendered.

I explained to her that this wasn’t her dad’s Les Mis – the one he first saw in (gulp) 1989. It’s producer Cameron Mackintosh’s reboot, which Toronto audiences were introduced to when it played the Princess of Wales, en route to Broadway, in 2013. I had cavils about some of its changes back then and I still miss a few of the inspired touches in Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original Royal Shakespeare Company staging. But this version, co-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, has grown on me.

Certainly, it’s a visual delight. I love the way Paule Constable’s gorgeously gloomy lighting paints Matt Kinley’s sets, evoking rotting wood and grimy brick, as well as the hazy backdrops inspired by Hugo’s own paintings. The effect is to plunge us sensually into the impoverished underside of early 19th-century France. And in the case of one stage trick – the leap from the bridge by Inspector Javert – this version spectacularly outdoes the original.

Interestingly, Javert was one of my daughter’s favourite characters. Put it down to Preston Truman Boyd’s robust performance as that tenacious upholder of the law, locked in a relentless pursuit of the parole-breaking Valjean.

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From left to right: Gregory Lee Rodriguez as Marius, Christine Heesun Hwang as Éponine, Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean, Addie Morales as Cosette in Les Misérables.Evan Zimmerman/Mirvish

She also loved Éponine – but then, who doesn’t? The tough-but-sad street kid, aching with unrequited love for the student Marius, is portrayed here by an appealing Mya Rena Hunter. And of course, she was charmed by the impudent urchin Gavroche, mascot of the revolution, embodied by child actors Leo Caravano and Milo Maharlika at alternating performances.

For my part, I enjoyed following Nick Cartell’s gracefully aging Valjean on his arc from sinner to saint. Although he didn’t completely win me over until he delivered an exquisite rendition of that prayer of self-sacrifice, Bring Him Home, making it the show’s vocal highlight.

Cartell is leading a North American touring company, launched in 2022, that includes both Les Mis vets such as himself and newbies. Among the latter I was especially taken with Haley Dortch’s Fantine. She uses her short stage time to make that underwritten character feel like a real human being.

On the other hand, Delaney Guyer’s Cosette and Jake David Smith’s Marius are bland young-lover archetypes. Smith, however, matures convincingly for his poignant postmortem on the rebellion, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. As the uprising’s student leader, Enjolras, a blond, angelic Devin Archer is the personification of pure ideals.

On the dirty flipside we have Matt Crowle and Victoria Huston-Elem as the predatory Thénardiers. They bring out the deliciously vulgar in Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics. Crowle is particularly good, his spindly, sleazy innkeeper gleefully feeding and fleecing the guests during Master of the House – that song whose earworm potential was spoofed in a memorable Seinfeld episode.

Watching Crowle, in a moment of nostalgia, I thought of Graeme Campbell, now long gone, who owned the role in the original Canadian production. (Happily, another star of that production, Louise Pitre, is over at Canadian Stage right now, appearing in The Inheritance.)

Of all the musicals she’s seen, my daughter said this one reminded her the most of Hamilton. Very astute. Lin-Manuel Miranda has said Les Mis was the show that made him want to write musicals. But she added that Claude-Michel Schönberg’s lush score – played here by a mostly local orchestra under the direction of Will Curry – sounded “more like opera.” True – all the better for emotions writ large. No one ever said Les Mis was subtle.

I thought I’d be immune to its blatant heart-tugging by now, but when the students, led by Kyle Adams’s lanky, brandy-swilling Grantaire, sing Drink with Me to Days Gone By, I did feel the odd twinge or two. Was I thinking of young people about to be martyred for a cause? Or did I just think of Les Misérables gone by? Probably both.

“Would you say this show is a Critic’s Pick?” I asked my daughter.

“Why not?” she replied.

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