‘Les Mis’ at The Wharton Center reaches Stars
LANSING, Mich.–Decades after it burst onto the musical theater scene, the centuries-old story of Victor Hugo’s Les Mis still feels as relevant and compelling as ever, whether it is the religious, political, or personal themes that are explored with such gusto and operatic vision.
Now touring through the Wharton Center, the show has all the elements that have made it such a blockbuster for so long. The music, the characters, the story—all of it has captivated more than a generation of musical lovers.
One thing that has changed, though, is that the cast is more diverse in look than ever before. There are people of many sizes and people of color are in such major roles as Eponine. It’s a move that makes sense and puts highly talented people into the parts.
Les Mis narrates a historic moment in French history where the working people were rebelling against the monarchy because of the squalid condition they were experiencing and the exploitation of the lower classes for the benefit of the wealthy. We see in the story many things that we continue to struggle with today—class and economic inequity, a broken corrections system that doesn’t allow for the rehabilitation of criminals, petty thieves who swindle anyone they can, and whether a person can change and become better than they were.
This production features Nick Cartell has Jean Valjean, the central hero who is both an everyman and a saint. He represents the flawed man who strives for the divine, strives to do good. He is compassion personified and even his “crime” was done for the well-being of another more vulnerable than himself.
Cartell has a powerful voice, a necessity for a show such as this where the music is always intense and mostly ballads—three hours of lung-filling vocal performance with demands not dissimilar to opera. He also provides a Jean Valjean filled with the grief of the world. He moves with a ponderance, especially as he ages. There is never a time where he isn’t robed in gravity, even while producing a range of emotion within that gravitas.
On press night, Paige Smallwood played Eponine and the strength of her performance made her the star of the second act. Smallwood’s Eponine is heart-breaking and sympathetic. More than in possibly any other character, we see a complex set of needs and desires. She has moments of playfulness, she chooses the path in life that she wants, even when it is helpless. Smalwood, in addition to having a voice that nearly brought down the house when she sang “On My Own,” uses her physicality to create a character whose story is more than her trauma or tragic end.
Javert was played by Josh Davis who sometimes looked so similar to Cartell that it prompted double takes. Davis knew, though, how to make Javert the villain while still presenting his humanity and the intense motivations that drove that character. His Javert is familiar; he is seen in the faces of a pervasive social media that never lets anyone forget the deeds or words of their past. He is an unbending, unforgiving person who lacks all the compassion that Jean ValJean has.
There are few moments of comedic relief in this show, though the Thenardiers provide some during “Master of the House” and the second act wedding. However, they are more dark than comedic, consistent with the storyline in which they create trauma for those they touch.
The staging is designed to keep the plot moving, though gone is the iconic rotating circle of the earlier productions. Instead, modern technology is adopted with intense projections that create the feeling of movement in several key moments. It’s a choice that ups the emotional investment without adding time to transitional scenes that require moving set pieces in and out.
This is a show that has nothing intimate about it—everything is on a grand scale. The story is epic in nature, most of the songs are ballads that leave the room vibrating and even the love and death scenes are turned into large and lofty moments that are the stuff of legend. But it is that grandness that makes it so memorable and a favorite of so many people.
It also continues to be relevant as the characters in it have the same traumas and challenges that too many people today have. We may not—or may—be on the verge of a people’s revolution, but we definitely share the society where there are grumblings about inequity.