It has romance, intrigue, fighting (from brawling to revolutionizing), costumes and grand sets. But what makes “Les Misérables” the box-office-record-breaking musical for all times are the soaring, huge songs that have worked their way into the American songbook.
Just in time for holiday outings, Cameron Mackintosh’s critically acclaimed production of the iconic play by Alain Boubill and Claude-Michel Schonberg has come to the National Theatre in all of its Broadway grandeur.
“Les Miz,” as it is commonly known, based on French writer Victor Hugo’s tale of poverty, hardship and resistance in Paris of the early 1800s, and its protagonist Jean Valjean, is considered one of the great novels of the 19th century.
With reworked staging and set design, this current production of the historic play draws on the paintings of its originator, Victor Hugo, creating a dark and menacing backdrop for the story of Valjean, who was arrested and jailed for stealing a loaf of bread and did 19 years of hard time, only to one day break free and live a life of French nobility. But he is vengefully pursued by the police in the personage of Inspector Javert.
The intermittent and critical crossing of Valjean and Javert’s paths create the plot, into which rich characters are inserted representing the lowlife and the elite of 19th century Paris. Valjean rescues the beleaguered young woman Fantine, who only seeks to feed her young daughter Cosette. Valjean rescues her from a life of inequity, only to see Fantine die tragically.
Valjean promises Fantine he will care for her daughter in the best way, making amends for the blessings he received from a bishop who vouched for him when he was once again accused of theft. As the bishop leaves Valjean with the directive to do God’s work for others, he keeps his promise to raise Cosette into a beautiful young woman.
The music, provided by a live orchestra, is what makes “Les Miz” the giant of musicals that it has been since it debuted in London in 1985. Songs like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing,” have become standard fare in their own right. But hearing the songs in the course of the story and illustrative staging, makes for a riveting, if not lengthy, theatrical experience.
While all of the cast are outstanding in this production, which is the same cast as the Broadway revival in 2014 at the Imperial Theater, where it played for more than 1,000 performances, Phoenix Best as Eponine nearly steals the entire show with her solo “On My Own.”
“Les Miz” was reimagined as an Oscar-winning film, starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway in 2012 and has been performed in 44 countries in 22 languages, making it one of the most enduring musicals of all time.
“I’m delighted that after a four-year absence this glorious production is once again going to be touring major cities across North America, and promises to be more spectacular than ever,” Macintosh said.
And, in its 32nd year of bringing this epic and historic tale of the triumph of the human spirit over the darkness of an unjust society, “Les Misérables” is as universal and timely as ever.
“Les Miserables” plays through Jan. 7 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Go to www.TheNationalDC.com for show times and ticket prices.