The traveling Broadway production of “Les Miserables” demonstrates the virtuosity of performers and set designers.
I first saw “Les Miserables” in the early spring of 2009, when Union High-School put on a production of it. I was nine years old, the perfect age to watch “Les Mis” for the first time. I enjoyed myself immensely, but I might have left the theater with a bit of a martyr complex, due to the fact that by the end of the show, nearly every character has died. When Celebrity Attractions brought the traveling Broadway production of “Les Miserables” to Tulsa, I made a point to go.
Now that I’ve seen “Les Miserables” in what some might call my adulthood, I can verify that it holds a timeless quality. The music, the characters and the plot all felt just as fresh and exciting as they did when I was nine. Of course, Victor Hugo’s story has held up for some 150 years. The traveling Broadway cast plays the musical straight, no frills or flourishes; but I mean, why mess with perfection?
It baffles me every time I see a Celebrity Attractions show at the Tulsa Performing Arts Center: the caliber of professionalism and talent that we host in Tulsa for a brief week is well worth at least the cost of one student rush ticket. Last year’s season impressed with the likes of “Waitress,” “Fiddler On the Roof” and, of course, “Hamilton.” They show no signs of slowing down, either, with the 2019/2020 season looking equally as impressive.
While the plot and characters of “Les Mis” are played straight, the play doesn’t unfold without creativity or artistry. The stage itself caused me to gasp. On each side of the wings were buildings that were almost to scale, making it look as though there was the entirety of a booming town on the stage.
The cast is smaller than you would think, and the ensemble spends a majority of their time on the stage. In a cast interview on his Instagram, one member mentioned that during the length of the show, he played 13 different roles. All of the principles led with vibrance, but the ensemble shines.
People don’t talk enough about the importance of lighting in a show, but it really can elevate or decrease a stage production’s quality. In “Les Mis” the lighting does a lot of heavy lifting to make the show look like a painting. The lighting took the actors and turned them into figures emulating Delacroix and Millet, seeping in and covering them. The light had a grainy quality to it, and the actors, dressed in neutrals, looked as though they were painted in grisaille.
An old director of mine used to tell his casts before we went on stage one of the rules of theater. He would say, “Now, when you go out on that stage, the audience wants to see you fail.” It’s the reason people still flock to see shows in the time of Netflix, and it’s harsh but true. And, sometimes, the production fails by no fault of the actors. Such was the case when I went to see “Les Mis.” Towards the end of Act I, a set piece malfunctioned and they had to pause the show after a solo by Eponine. They didn’t even turn up the house lights, the issue was fixed so quickly.
There really is nothing better than a good story well told, and “Les Miserables” does just that. It’s complex and gnarled, and, when handled with an empathetic touch, it speaks to more than the sum of its parts.
I suppose this is all to say, I see myself somehow in the characters of “Les Miserables,” in their miserable-ness, in their humanity, in the redemption and despair. The story endures because it does the thing that made me an English major: It shows something about yourself in the characters, something that’s less about 18th century France and a failed June Rebellion and more about those base emotions and experiences we still face today.