By Jeff Levene
If you listen closely this week in Downtown Greenville, you may just hear the sound of angry men (and women) as “Les Miserables” once again takes the stage at Peace Center. And while adding an impressive new set and some truly special visual effects, it is the aforementioned sound of Les Miz’s legendary score and vocal performances that remind patrons why The Peace Center has once again included it as part of this years Broadway Series.
As has come to be expected from the 1980 Broadway smash adaptation of Victor Hugo’s similarly named title, this rendition of “Les Miserables” boasts a vocally valliant ensemble. Their goosebump inducing, rally cry numbers ignited rapturous applause throughout the performance, showing the pure power these anthems still have today. Add to these tunes the blend of projections, haze, hauntingly dark lighting and stunning set pieces, and the show delivers a new breed of immersion for those familiar with the work and newcomers alike.
Where some of this immersion is lost is with a few too many bland choices from directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, whose direction doesn’t always tap into the emotion from a set of songs that ironically have always prided themselves on being heavily emotional. Several intimate moments felt stagnant, leaving a mass-produced taste to some typically tender scenes.
For example, Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream”, while beautifully sung by Melissa Mitchell, mostly relied on run and place movements, deriving emotion more from the show’s most iconic hit, rather than using the song to drive character development.
This similar plant and sing formula is in a number of other places throughout the performance, but some actors overcome it. One example of this is Phoenix Best as Eponine, who adds several intimate expressions that elevate her acting to match her soaring singing prowess in “On My Own”. Likewise in “A Little Fall of Rain”, Best plays out Eponine’s last dying moments with security, spunk, wonder, and passion, all while simply huddled in the love of her life’s lap.
Nick Cartell likewise breaks this formula with his commanding (occasionally excessive) physicality, encapsulating the anger of a young Jean Valjean in “Soliloquy”. Cartell uses this mastery of movement to craft an aging Valjean, offering an adorable fathering kindness in his dance with Cosette. And he brings what can only be described as the physical embodiment of love and care in the gorgeously sung “Bring Him Home”.
John Davis’ Javert also offers impressive range, from his haunting and confident baritone in “Stars”, to his descent into denial and eventual madness in his own rendition of “Soliloquy”.
But where direction is strong is with the ensemble numbers. The whole cast delivers much needed energy with numbers that keep the show’s pace steaming forward towards revolution. Whether offering a moment to laugh out loud during the boisterously hilarious and vulgar “Master of the House”, or of bringing inspiring bravery while belting the glorious anthem of rebellion, “The People’s Song”, it’s the ensemble that continually reminds audiences of the show’s deep sense of community and camaraderie. And at the end of the day, it’s this notion of community and brotherhood amidst a sinister world that keeps “Les Miserables” as stirring and beautiful as it was when it first began 37 years ago.
“Les Miserables” runs through November 5th at the Peace Center. You can purchase tickets online by visiting https://www.peacecenter.org/events/shows-tickets or by calling their box office at (864) 467-3000.