Everyone remembers seeing their favorite musical for the first time live, for most of us theatre lovers it is honestly the experience of a lifetime. There is something so powerful, so emotional, so special about seeing the show that you care so much for live, and for a variety of reasons. For me, that very special experience was Les Misérables. Les Misérables has very well been my favorite musical since I first became a fan of theatre. I remember randomly coming across the 25th Anniversary Concert on the television channel PBS where they were playing it in December of 2010. I watched it out of pure curiosity, and 8 years later, I am so glad I did. Since then I had always been hoping and dreaming of seeing a production of it live. I wasn’t able to make any of the recent Broadway revival performances, so that desire only grew. Now recently, that dream became a reality. On March 4, 2018 in Detroit, Michigan, my biggest dream had come true. Here I will be talking about the incredible cast of the current 5th National Tour (yes, this is Les Mis’s 5th United States Tour) and why I hope they will touch the lives of people all over the country, just like they touched mine. If you haven’t seen Les Misérables, I, one, invite you to watch the 25th Anniversary Concert and the 2012 Film to gain a better understanding of the show, and two, to read with caution as I will be posting some mentions of the story, which can contain spoilers and character deaths.
Let me first mention, that even though this is the same story as previous tours, the re-staging is different. Back in 2010 Laurence Connor wanted to “re-imagine” Les Misérables for newer audiences for the 25th Anniversary, so the ever famous turning table was taken out of the production (I have heard it said it was easier to tour) and some of the sets were changed around. Being a mega fan of the show, I was very worried. However, having seen it in person that pre-conceived mindset I had was gone. It was done absolutely wonderfully, the choreography to make up for the loss of movement was brilliant. Without boring everyone with the technicalities, I would love to mention the movement of the barricade. It was brought in from both sides of the stage and covered the entire stage of The Fisher Theatre here in Detroit (which is honestly a pretty big theatre with a large stage to match). The choreography of The Final Battle in Act 2 being done so timely, with the barricade boys being shot, and them falling backwards to mark that significance of their death, and with the character of Enjolras falling forward to signify that something indeed happened to him, and it was only made aware to us, as the audience, that he did indeed get shot when one of Javert’s Constables brought around a cart, in which we see Enjolras hanging from it, our worst fears confirmed. Another thing I want to quickly mention, in the song “Turning” which is a song that is some of the females of Paris sing about the lost barricade boys, they lay down candles for the boys (one candle per boy) and during the following song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” the boys come out and pick up the candles and walk away, a chilling but tear wrenching parallel. Another thing I loved that they did was during “The Epilogue” after Fantine and Eponine introduce Valjean to heaven, The Bishop from the beginning of the show meets him, hugs him, and shows Valjean everyone who is there. To me, that parallel tied the show together perfectly.
At my performance, I had a few understudy and swings on, as some of the cast was off sick (also Joshua Grosso with a minor foot injury, healing power to him), but I cannot praise these understudies enough. Let’s move right along!
I had the immense honor of seeing the Valjean understudy, cleverly nicknamed 24602, Steve Czarnecki. Not only was it, dare I say, awesome, to see an understudy for the main role, it was insanely special to see Steve, as he is from Michigan, so having that hometown represent was amazing to witness. Steve is an incredible Valjean. He carried the show so well, with a powerful voice to match. Whenever the story changed directions, Steve went right along with it and did it in a smooth way. His voice is booming (his Bring Him Home left me absolutely breathless, if I wasn’t already crying him alone would have reduced me to baby tears). His on-stage chemistry with every one of his castmates was wonderful, nothing felt awkward in any scene. He dominated the stage, and everyone went right along with it. He played Valjean as so caring about others, and he made Valjean soft when he needed to be, powerful when he needed to be, and in charge when he needed to be. Something I would love to add, that in The Epilogue, he made Valjean hurting, emotional and soft, he didn’t use the power in his voice for this scene like I have heard previous Valjean’s do in show’s past. That just made the finale so much more sad and beautiful, and I give my hat off to Mr. Czarnecki and his performance as Valjean. He knew exactly what to do and when, all while making it enjoyable.
Josh Davis was on for Javert and he was born for this role. When I read the novel (cleverly nicknamed The Brick by fans), I had this perfect mental image of how Javert acts, looks, and would ultimately sing, and before this nobody has ever come close to that. Josh was the perfect embodiment of Javert. He was passionate, hard, and never went soft like I have heard some Javert’s do. But, he didn’t make him angry. There’s a line between passion and anger with this kind of role, and Josh never crossed it. His voice is once again powerful, and when he was on stage, you listened. He MADE you listen. His “Stars” was absolutely amazing, with that passion right along with it. His scenes with Steve were also enjoyable, as they were such contradictions of another, with Steve’s Valjean having that caring aspect I had mentioned, and Josh having that I’m going to do whatever it takes attitude, and that is why their scenes together were so enjoyable. Their “The Confrontation” was also incredible to witness, with them running over the stage, both of their voices, as powerful as they are, mixing so well together but still being able to hear both. Also a huge round of applause for his final song “Javert’s Soliloquy”, he never once doubted the choice he was going to make, just like he made his Javert noble and confident in his choices, this song wrapped up his portrayal perfectly.
Now, on to Melissa Mitchell as Fantine. You might be familiar with her if you were a fan/were familiar with the recent Broadway revival. From 2014-2015 she was the understudy for Cosette and then from 2015-2016 she was the understudy for Fantine, before ultimately landing the principal spot on Tour. By the time this is published, Melissa would have played her final performance as Fantine (her last performance being March 18, 2018), but enough good things cannot be said about her portrayal. Fantine is my personal favorite character in the novel and musical, and Melissa played her with such perfection, such grace, such determination, I honestly have no words besides beautiful to describe Melissa. Melissa’s Fantine was so determined to do whatever it took for Cosette, much like Josh with Javert, she never once doubted her decisions. Until the very end, her one thought was for her daughter, and that is the true definition of a mother. A quick note of Melissa’s voice, her I Dreamed a Dream is the best rendition of the song I have ever heard. She never once let it drop to a sappy song, she kept it up a power ballad and kept up the fury of what she had happen to her, and she never once was sad or upset about it. Her Fantine was so strong, and she never went down the “giving up” path, until the very end, she never gave up. Her voice and her acting showed that, and that is why I believe Melissa was the epitome of Fantine.
Given that Emily Bautista had just started as Eponine two weeks prior to my seeing her and that I haven’t heard much of her before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew she had just left the recent Broadway Revival of Miss Saigon as the understudy to Kim, but to say I was blown away by her performance as Eponine is an understatement. She played her in a way that I personally have never seen or heard. She was very consistent with her emotions all throughout her time on stage, and she had a lot of chemistry with Robert Ariza, who was on for Marius. To show her “flirting” with Marius, she would get physical with Marius (by physical I mean pushing slightly, having that “oh I don’t like you” attitude, etc.) and would be playful with him as well. I have never seen that and was delightfully entertained by it. She played Eponine so even though to Marius she had the previously mentioned “oh no I don’t like YOU” attitude, it was obvious she had some sort of crush on him, whereas Robert played it to the brother/sister extent, so those two parallels were very nice to see. Her “On My Own” was absolutely spectacular, her voice was large and filled up the entire theatre, and she belted her way through the song which I absolutely loved. I know it is up to the individual on how to deliver the line “all my life, I’ve only been pretending” but most Eponine’s riff it, she just belted all the way through it, and it was spectacular. Her last big note was wonderful and she sang it so effortlessly, a huge bravo to her. Something I couldn’t see very well due to distance, but not only was her acting spot on during “A Little Fall of Rain” (she sang the song all while making it known that she was dying and was shot), but as she was about to die, it seemed she went in to kiss Marius as she died. If so, that is something I personally haven’t seen since 2010 in London when Nancy Sullivan did that with Alistair Brammer.
Another use of that understudy magic, is Robert Ariza. Robert was just about the most happy, most excited Marius I have ever heard. In Act 1, he was just filled with SO much joy as Marius, especially with his scenes with Cosette. Something I just loved that he did was during “In My Life” when he went to Cosette’s window and began throwing stones ala Romeo and Juliet style (again thanks to the re-staging). When she came out for a second then popped back in (which we, as an audience, knew she was coming to meet Marius), he was flustered and kind of laughed his line of “I’m doing everything all wrong” and kind of hit his head, it was the small things like that that Robert did that I just loved so much. Then in Act 2, during the barricade scenes, he really made Marius more attentive and focused, even having Enjolras kind of demanding Marius to rest before “Drink with Me.” Then when it came time for “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” you could feel his hurt, his guilt and his regret that he was still alive. Robert absolutely made you feel the emotions that Marius was feeling during that time, and it was not only beautiful, but also haunting. Robert knows how to sing with emotions and he did not once let that talent go to waste. Every time there needed to be something felt, he made you feel it. It wasn’t only resonated in his voice, but felt inside the person. Whether it be joy, happiness, or hurt and pain, Robert made you feel what he was portraying for his Marius to feel. Also something I would love to add, as I had mentioned with the candles during “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” towards the end, all of the barricade boys had backed up, except Enjolras, who was holding his candle out still to Marius, so it was Marius singing to his memory of Enjolras, and even though Mike Schwitter was just standing still and Robert singing to him, that was another example of where his sadness was felt in you.
Jillian Butler was absolutely BORN to play Cosette. She sang with such ease, it came so natural for her. She never once overdid any of the notes that were given to her, it was just perfection. A little thing that she did in “In My Life” was when Marius did his thing after Cosette ran down (about him delivering the line and hitting his head) Cosette came up behind up, coughed and went “ahem” in the cutest way, it was a touching moment to see that. Jillian’s Cosette was playful and so filled with joy and life, and was so soft and sweet as well. Jillian just put so much into her portrayal of Cosette, I wish she was on stage more so I could praise Jillian some more. She was just born to play her, and they are truly one in the same.
Another super understudy-by super I mean he covers both Marius AND Enjolras- that I saw for the latter, was Mike Schwitter. Besides Fantine, Enjolras is my absolute favorite character in the show, and Mike just set the bar so high for him. The way Mike plays off of the Les Amis (aka the barricade boys), is so individual to the boys, all while him being in charge of everything. He made for such a passionate Enjolras, his voice commanded the stage whenever every time he was on which is what I love about the character. Mike made you listen to what was happening, and made you want to follow. Personally, I love it when an Enjolras belts more because the passion shines more, and Mike did that really well. I believe Mike was born to play Enjolras somehow, he played him to a tee. He never made his Enjolras defeated at the barricade, even going into The Final Battle, he kept the passion and spirit up, and he literally fought until the last possible second. Mike’s voice combined with his acting makes for the perfect recipe for Enjolras, one in which was such a joy to watch. Such a powerful voice for a powerful role, and he dominated every scene he was in. You would have never known that earlier in the week he debuted his Enjolras, it seemed that he has been playing the role for ages. He understood the character as well as Melissa understood Fantine, and dare I say this, but his Enjolras is truly iconic. I honestly could go on and on about how spot on Mike played Enjolras, it was truly spectacular.
The Thenardier’s were absolutely hilarious. Thenardier being played by J. Anthony Crane, and Madame Thenardier being played by Allison Guinn, they were just so funny and were the best scene partners for another. J. Anthony just made me laugh so much, I love that during “The Bargain” he kept with the “darling Colette” line, the way he said it so confidently was hilarious. He brought so much life into the character, I have never been a fan of Thenardier, but J. Anthony made me love him so much, because he didn’t play him off as silly as some Thenardier’s are played. He played him off as a real person who just didn’t care and had this “I’ll do whatever I want” attitude. Also, right before “Master of the House” he yelled to Madame Thenardier “I should’ve married your sister!” and I have never heard that done, so to have that just made me laugh so much. He really has a blast on stage with his Thenardier, his comedic timing on everything is perfect, and he didn’t try to be funny with his Thenardier. He just WAS funny. Allison as Madame Thenardier was equally as hilarious and her comedic timing was equally as perfect. She ad-libbed a lot throughout, and it worked so well. She made her Madame Thenardier absolutely not give any cares towards Cosette or her husband’s inn, she knew what she was doing however. Also before “The Bargain” when Valjean walked in with Cosette, she was trying to…you know…get Valjean’s “attention”, and her physical comedy in that scene was so funny. She was all over the stage and she just had a blast with the character. These 2 together are a masterpiece and really complete another in the roles.
A quick special shout to The Les Amis aka the barricade boys. Every one of them played their respective roles so well, and with such ease. They absolutely knew what they were doing, and made me really care about The Amis which I was hoping too, as when I watched the concerts and film I always looked forward to them. A quick shoutout to Brett Stoelker for being an awesome Feuilly. He is one of my favorite barricade boys and Brett’s voice was absolutely wonderful for Feuilly’s line in “Drink with Me.” I would have loved to see Brett in the rest of his barricade boy tracks, as I am sure he is equally as wonderful as the rest of the boys, but for now, his Feuilly absolutely nailed it with an equally as spectacular voice to match. Finally a last note to Matthew Moisey as Grantaire. He played him with such an ease and in Act 1, he made his Grantaire so unbothered by the upcoming events, and he really hammed up his Grantaire. Then, his “Drink with Me” was so heartbreaking, you could hear the fear in his voice of the events, and how he was actually scared of what would happen. He was the best Grantaire I have ever heard, he understood the character so incredibly well, and he made you feel his Grantaire emotions as well.
If you made it this far then congrats! In all honesty though, this cast of Les Misérables had made my first time seeing the show live so memorable and so incredible. This show has helped me through some hard times personally, so this meant everything to me. If you are a hardcore fan of Les Mis, then this cast will not disappoint you. They are the strongest cast of the musical I have ever heard, absolutely nobody is a weak link, and they will leave you breathless and speechless like they left me. I hope everyone has the chance to see this amazing company and this beautiful show. It truly is spectacular and should be seen at least once in everyone’s life.