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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

Les Misérables at Shea's

Review by Anthony Chase

a scene from Les Misérables
"One Day More" from Les Misérables. (See the note regarding the red flag below). Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for Murphymade

There is always an air of excitement about the arrival of Les Misérables at Shea’s. Even as the audience entered the building for Tuesday’s opening night performance, there was a palpable feeling of electricity. My hair cutter called that morning, asking me to come in earlier because so many clients had rearranged appointments in order to make the 7:30 curtain time. For many people, “Les Miz” is their one favorite show.


What is left to be written about “Les Miz” all these thousands of performances and billions of dollars later?


Well, part of the excitement on Tuesday, was whether Buffalo’s own Genevieve Ellis, who understudies the role of Fantine, might play the role that night. We were kept wondering until after we had entered the theater. Everyone in the know headed straight for the cast board. This is an occasion when we were all delighted to read the words, “At this performance….” 

Haley Dortch as Fantine
Haley Dortch, who plays Fantine in national tour of Les Misérables now at Shea's. Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Apparently, lovely Haley Dortch, who usually plays Fantine, graciously stepped aside so that Western New York audiences could see the hometown girl for one night. 


A native of Chautauqua County, Ellis is a graduate of the musical theater program at SUNY Fredonia. She was beginning to make big waves in Buffalo when the pandemic hit. She had been cast as Rosalind in As you Like It at Shakespeare in Delaware Park, oppose Darryl Semira, but the production quickly became a COVID cancelation. Before she left town, we saw her star as Belle opposite Steve Copps as Beast in Beauty and the Beast at Theatre of Youth. She did Songs for a New World at Second Generation. There was always something special about her.


On Tuesday night Ellis acquitted herself magnificently at Shea’s. The role of Fantine requires a show-stopping performance of “I Dreamed a Dream,” and she did not disappoint, giving a lush and emotional interpretation. In addition to being an excellent actor, Ellis brings personal beauty to the role of the ill-fated mother of Cosette, and gave a heartrending and memorable performance. I expect that Ellis, who is wonderful in every way, will continue to build her national profile.   


So, beyond that, if I can add anything helpful to your enjoyment of yet another production of Les Misérables, I might mention that the show is not set against the backdrop of the French Revolution of 1789 as many think. That would be Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities

Neither is the show set against the backdrop of the February Revolution of 1848, when King Louis-Philippe abdicated and fled to England. That prompted the founding of the Second Republic and served as the backdrop for Gustave Flaubert's The Sentimental Education.


“Les Miz” is set during the June Rebellion of 1832, a warmup to the 1848 uprising, when Republicans sought, unsuccessfully, to overthrow Louis-Philippe. On that occasion, 3,000 insurgents barricaded themselves into the center of Paris, and Louis-Philippe responded by mowing them down with 60,000 militiamen and army troops. (73 insurgents and 93 government troops died). We only recall this one-day blip in French history today because Victor Hugo, a staunch anti-royalist, witnessed the event and wrote about it in his 1862 novel, Les Misérables


As we would expect, this production of Les Misérables is visually stunning. Indeed, it is always awkward to have to explain to people who adore this show with unbridled devotion, why critics tend to admire its form over its content. The original staging by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, with its spectacular set by John Napier brilliantly condensed all the major events of Hugo’s novel into three thrilling hours with impressive clarity. While some of its lyrics have been described as being of the spoon-moon-June variety, the soaring melodies of the score also include the gloriously perfect, “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own.” Indeed, Les Misérables is notable for its proficiency in employing every Broadway musical theater trick and emotional ploy to dazzling advantage. No matter how jaded or world weary you might be, I defy you not feel your soul stir as you bolt upright in your seat while experiencing that remarkable Act I closer, “One Day More.”


The show relentlessly reminds us of Hugo’s championship of the downtrodden and belief in the redemptive power of God. The plot also faithfully follows the novel’s central narrative, about how Jean Valjean is converted to the path of good deeds by the kindness of a priest, only to be pursued without mercy by the righteous and inflexible officer Javert. The show does, however, tend to privilege the lushly heightened romance element over Hugo’s urgent message of social justice.


This production of Les Misérables resembles the original in pleasing ways, but has been re-envisioned. John Napier’s use of a turntable to keep the action moving, particularly the thrilling way it was able to rotate the colossal street barricade, is legendary. For this production, however, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, movement through space and time has been augmented by eye-popping and enormously effective videography. Set and Image design is by Matt Kinley, “inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.”

The tour certainly benefits from the talent of Nick Cartell who gives a compelling performance as Jean Valjean. This role can sometimes be a hard sell, but Cartell, who sings brilliantly, is never cloying, never sanctimonious, never insipid in his goodness. In short, he doesn’t fall into any of the usual Jean Valjean traps, instead giving a powerful and gripping performance that provides a secure anchor for this expansive show.


Preston Truman Boyd strikes a formidable figure in the thankless yet crucially important role of Javert. He imbues the man with a sense of unyielding conviction that makes his final collapse not merely gratifying but also moving. He is marvelous in the sincerity of his loathsomeness.


Mya Rena Hunter is excellent as Eponine. Delaney Guyer is similarly superb as Cosette. These are roles that merely require ingenues to sing brilliantly. Eponine needs a bit of spunk and a lot of masochism. Cosette needs to sing like a nightingale and exude goodness and libido simultaneously. Both actors manage to give a sense of more.

the Master of the House scene from Les Misérables
Master of the House from Les Misérables. Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The Thenardiers (the nasty master and mistress of the house) are cartoon roles that seem to have jumped from the pen of George Cruikshank. Highly Victorian in their conception, the characters are menacing yet comical. It’s a difficult path to tread. Matt Crowle and Victoria Huston-Elem do quite well. Like everyone who plays the roles, they evoke memories of seeing Oliver! but at the same time, they amusingly advance the story of Les Miz.


Devin Archer and company
Devin Archer as Enjoiras and company. Photo: Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Among the rest of the cast, Devin Archer gives a striking performance as Enjolras. Jake David Smith is dreamy and heroic as Cosette’s beloved Marius, and he sings angelically. On Tuesday, we saw adorable Milo Maharlika as Petit Gervais and he was perfection, singing, clowning, and even dying with believable conviction. 


At the end of the day, I was obliged to admit that I had never enjoyed Les Misérables quite so much. Maybe the passage of time and the presence of Genevieve Ellis softened me up – not to mention the euphoric enthusiasm of a packed house of true Les Misérables fans which was infectious!


Les Miz Extras


The Dickens Connection

While Les Misérables does not have the same setting as A Tale of Two Cities, it does have a bit of Dickens ancestry, for its predecessor is another collaboration by directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird. When Les Miz, debuted in 1987, it was generally agreed that this was, in the words of Frank Rich of the New York Times, “the Nunn-Caird Nicholas Nickleby gone gloriously show-biz.” Nunn and Caird’s eight-and-a-half-hour stage adaptation of Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby had been a huge hit in 1980. While everyone who has done high school musicals is very familiar with Les Miz, Nicholas Nickleby, a cultural phenomenon at the time, is a mostly forgotten historic relic.


Victor Hugo and the Redemptive Power of God

From Les Misérables, you might get the mistaken impression that Victor Hugo had a lifelong devotion to the Catholic church. The priest who covers for Jean Valjean comes off very well indeed, and the redemptive power of God is referenced often. Actually, while he was a devout Catholic in his youth, in time Hugo became vocally anti-church, a posture undoubtedly exacerbated by the frequency with which his work appeared on the Church's list of banned books. Far from indifferent to the church's disapproval, Hugo bothered to document 740 attacks on Les Misérables alone in the Catholic press. In his will, he stipulated that there be no priest at his funeral. He also became an enthusiastic participant in seances. Nonetheless, the man prayed daily.

John Napier’s use of a turntable

John Napier’s use of a turntable to keep the action moving in the original 1987 production of Les Misérables, particularly the splendid way it was able to rotate the colossal street barricade, has led some to believe that Napier invented that scenic device. This is far from true. A turntable was used in France by Tommaso Francini for Le Ballet de la Deliverance de Renaud in 1617 for Queen Marie de Medici (mother of that well-known theater lover, Louis XIII). It has been standard in Japanese Kabuki since the early 18th century. Certainly, few have used it more spectacularly than Napier.

The Red Flag during “One Day More”

It might amuse you to know that the spark that ignited the June Rebellion of 1832 was the death of Jean Maximilien Lamarque, who is referenced in the musical. He was a popular former Army commander and member of parliament who was against the monarchy. While the musical implies that he somehow died for the cause, he was actually one of 20,000 people who died of cholera during an outbreak in Paris that year. At his funeral, mourners gave political speeches, and when someone began to waive the red flag of revolution, a riot broke out. Yes. The fabulous red flag bit at the end of Act I is historically accurate, though the original flag bore the slogan, La Liberté ou la Mort. The brilliant idea to meld the flag waving moment, musically, with the parting of lovers Marius and Cosette, and the lamentations of unloved Eponine was by Nunn and Caird with the contributions of composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. In an additional, interesting historic note, a young painter was sentenced to death for waving the flag and thereby inciting the attempted insurrection. After appeal, this was reduced to a jail sentence, and subsequently the actual flag waver was identified but released on account of mental defect. The French government became so nervous about flag-waving they they had Eugène Delacroix's painting Liberty Leading the People, familiar to all art history students, which had been commissioned to commemorate the July Revolution of 1830, removed from public view.

Eugène Delacroix's painting, Liberty Leading the People
La Liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix, which celebrated the forceful removal of King Charles X in 1830 -- again, NOT the French Revolution of 1789. It seems the French are very susceptible to the effects of flag-waving.



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