Preston Truman Boyd (left) and Nick Cartell square off in "Les Miserables." Matthew Murphy photo
Just as reading Victor Hugo’s voluminous 1862 novel “Les Miserables” is a major commitment of time, so is seeing the 40-plus-year-old musical based on it what has become one of the standards of modern-day musical theater. I ought to know. I’ve seen “Les Mis” three or four times, the most recent this week at the Civic Theatre downtown where a touring production is in residence through Oct. 15.
You sit there for three hours and digest a subplot-packed tale of good vs. evil, revolution, romance, reclamation and a helluva lot more. I’m a sucker for this show, I admit. It’s too long. It’s bombastic. It traffics in sentiment. But it’s just so damned good.
Broadway San Diego’s brought a national touring production of the sung-through “Les Mis” to the Civic Theatre downtown. It’s hard to imagine there are theatergoers who’ve never seen this epic show for which Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer wrote the music and lyrics. (As to credit for its book, start with Hugo, then add the authors of the original French text, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel,, stir in additional material by James Fenton, shake vigorously with Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s adaptation, and you have this veritable classic.) It’s defensible what they say about “too many cooks” – seeing “Les Mis” again reminded me of a couple of plot points that really could have been excised for time, such as the unrequited love Eponine has for Marius, who as you will remember only has eyes for Cosette.
But I pick nits here. The fact that “Les Miserable” is so stuffed with song and narrative and is so sweeping is part of its longstanding appeal. After all, Hugo’s novel was thick enough to prop open a heavy door. Why should any kind of faithful adaptation be leaner?
The unquestioned star of this touring production is Nick Cartell playing Hugo’s redemptive hero, Jean Valjean. As my friend Pam Kragen with the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote recently, Cartell is nearing his 1,000th performance in the role. He has a remarkable voice, able to project an uncommon anguished sweetness as in the second-act “Bring Him Home,” in which he holds a note to astounding effect and earns deserved roars of approval from the audience.
In this touring production, Cartell is complemented by Preston Truman Boyd as Valjean’s base adversary, Javert. Boyd’s booming delivery overcomes acoustic issues that unfortunately Haley Dortch as the tragic Fantine is unable to.
Though her role, as I said, seems like it only pads the narrative, Phoenix Best is the best among the production’s female vocalists as Eponine. Her tender “On My Own” is an inspiring way to begin Act Two of the show.
For all its grimness and sincerity, “Les Mis” wouldn’t be “Les Mis” without the debauched Thenardier character and his bawdy wife. Matt Crowle and Victoria Huston-Elem are understandable crowd pleasers, low that their characters may be. Well, are.
With a little help from George Costanza in the memorable “Seinfeld” episode “The Jacket,” the boisterous “Master of the House” number is, in some people’s minds, the best known tune from “Les Miserables.” Les Thenardiers are unleashed and hilarious.
This touring production is impressively staged by Geoffrey Garratt, with scene-changing projections by Finn Ross and Fifty-Nine Productions and emotive lighting by Paule Constable. The sets, from the rowdy inn to the revolutionists’ barricade, are big-time.
Also effective and visceral are the re-creations of battle from the heights of the rebels’ barricade, with gun noises, pops, explosions and even powder smells filling the theater.
So … have I seen “Les Mis” enough times now? Can I close the book on it as I have for, say, “Chicago” or “A Chorus Line”?
I don’t think so. It’s a bigger, better show than either of those, and when it comes around again, whenever that may be, I’ll probably once more be brushing up on my Hugo, my French and my “Master of the House” lyrics.
“Les Miserables” runs through Oct. 15 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.