“Les Misérables” — the powerhouse musical that tells the sweeping story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean and his constant pursuer Javert — rolled into the packed Kentucky Center for the Arts Tuesday.
Since the musical first opened in London in 1985 and made its 1987 Broadway debut, many of its songs have become firmly embedded in the culture, due in part to talent shows including the stunning debut of Susan Boyle in 2009 singing “I Dreamed a Dream” on “Britain’s Got Talent.”
On Tuesday, all the musical’s beautiful and popular songs — including “I Dreamed a Dream,” “At the End of the Day,” “Master of the House,” “On My Own” and not least of all “Do You Hear the People Sing?” or “The People’s Song” — were on full blast in Whitney Hall.
The current production is big — the grand sets, the lighting, the orchestration, voices of the cast, and the story that covers some of the massive themes of love and redemption in a world fraught with poverty and corruption that writer Victor Hugo laid out in his novel.
At the center is the hero, Jean Valjean, portrayed by Nick Cartell who is able to convey the anguish of this man who has been so wronged and yet finds joy by doing right for the downtrodden he encounters. Much of this comes through the music and his full tenor voice makes his performance one of the most moving of the evening, particularly the stunning “Bring Him Home.”
His counterpart, Josh Davis, presents an ominous Javert, the inspector whose view of law and order includes the belief that once a criminal always a criminal. Davis projects a booming baritone that wields authority.
But glimpses into the hearts of characters come and go quickly as this production moves quite fast.
There is quick-as-lightening movement as the company rolls out the prologue, which shows Valjean’s last moment’s as a hellish prisoner, his release and his journey trying to find a way in the world and finding ridicule, rejection and no work until a priest takes him in and even grants him mercy when he attempts to steal from the parish house.
When the scene opens on the factory of women working and singing “At the End of the Day,” there is hope for reprieve as the upbeat and antagonistic song kicks in as the women recount their hard lives.
The production hits the right tempo with the row that boils among the women with Fantine and the foreman, and ends with Fantine’s firing, giving way to “I Dreamed a Dream.” Then it becomes apparent that the tempo hasn’t changed as Mary Kate Moore as Fantine and the orchestra perform in sync — both seem rushed.
Then comes an exception — when Fantine’s daughter, little Cosette (Elisa Avery Dees), sings “Castle on a Cloud” imagining a life of not having to toil for the innkeeper and his wife. But that’s just a reprieve.
The evening moves at a hectic pace, from one scene and one song to the next, allowing little time for character reflection, for a heart to beat, for a breath.
The only scenes that don’t become encumbered by the haste are the raucous scenes with Thenardier and Madame Thenardier, the con artists who run the inn, and the student uprising against the monarchy.
As the Thenardiers, J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn whip up hilarity with their awful and audacious manners at running their inn and stealing from their patrons in “Master of the House” and when they crash a wedding in “Beggars at the Feast.”
The ballads flow as the three young people — the grown-up Cosette (Jillian Butler) who Valjean has adopted after her mother’s death, Marius (Robert Ariza) and Éponine (Emily Bautista) sort through their feelings of love and loss with “In My Life” and “A Heart Full of Love.” In both, soprano Butler’s voice carries a sparkling clarity and soulfulness.
Some of the most impressive effects of Matt Kinley’s digital designs on the sets come when Javert is contemplating his unfaltering guidance of his faith and his pursuit of Valjean as he sings “Stars” under a night sky on a bridge, and toward the end as Valjean is carrying Marius through the vast and winding sewers of Paris.
A more contemplative and welcomed moment arrives with Ariza as Marius singing “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” on a stage with scattered candles glowing.
In the face of Marius’ grief and Valjean’s death after the injustices they had experienced, the story ends with the idea that love can prevail.
But through life, taking in what is happening in each moment without rushing to the next can be just as important. Too bad this production often did the exact opposite.
“Les Misérables” runs through Sunday, March 15, at the Kentucky Center as part of the PNC Broadway in Louisville series. There’s more information here.