By Leah Wright
On opening night, the music of Les Misérables echoed through Tennessee Performing Arts Center (TPAC) with the dramatic flair for which the show is well known. Through the strong notes carried by Nick Cartell’s voice, the story of Jean Valjean’s honor and redemption was beautifully laid out for the audience. Josh Davis appeared as the formidable Javert and served as the perfect foe for our protagonist as he stood tall and resolute during his hunt for Valjean through the years, but collapsed into the form of a lost and regretful man by the time of his final appearance.
As Madame Thénardier, Allison Guinn thrilled the audience with her salacious sassiness and excellent facial expressions. She consistently surprised and delighted the viewers. Her robust talent (almost) makes one want to spend a night in her inn, so as to study it and her more closely.
As one of the youngest members of the cast, Julian Emile Lerner was a beautiful surprise. He stepped perfectly into the role of Gavroche (he alternates in the role with Jordan Cole) and commanded the audience’s attention each time he appeared. He has a stage presence that is usually seen in more seasoned actors, yet his Broadway World profile indicates this to be his first stage production. His accomplishment as a level 6 gymnast would make him the perfect candidate for the lead role in Billy Elliot or another show with similar physical demands. This young man is certainly one to watch if he remains involved with theater.
In addition to excellent and flawless performances, the show features a stunning set that is a combination of traditional builds and digital projections. The mixture paired with excellent lighting detail gives a depth to the stage that would be absent otherwise. The set changes every few minutes, but the transitions were so quick and seamless that the audience was often left to wonder exactly how the changes had taken place almost without notice.
The songs of Les Misérables lead the audience through Jean Valjean’s life and the lives of the interlopers in his story, including the orphaned Cosette (Jillian Butler). The musical score and lyrics of the well-known and much-loved songs excellently set the tone for the scenes and pull the viewers into the story. The audience gasped with the innocence of Cosette’s “Castle in the Cloud” and felt the absolutely devastating grief as one of the most beloved characters fell during the French Revolution. As Marius (Joshua Grosso) sang “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” in honor of those who were lost, hearts were effectively ripped from viewers’ chests and left next to the lifeless bodies on the barricade.
This show has become a classic for good reason. It is a beautiful telling of Victor Hugo’s novel, which is highly regarded as one of the best novels of the 19th century. It first appeared on Broadway in 1987 and resonates with audiences still today, as we continue to struggle with issues of morality, standing up to persecution, fighting for love, and overcoming obstacles that keep us from that love. The show is rated PG-13, so it is not for the faint of heart. The story itself is dark and moody, while adult themes such as drinking and prostitution appear throughout, complete with simulated sex acts. The second act features a rather vivid gunfight that leaves several lying motionless. The sound of gunfire and light flashes along with the release of smoke give this particular scene a sense of realness and rawness that could be disturbing to some.
If your familiarity with Les Misérables is with the movie version and you’ve never seen the stage show, think of it as the more mature older sibling to the slightly sterilized film. It’s a show that touches, shocks, and breaks your heart and it is an absolute must see.