Arguably one of the most popular and beloved musicals of all time, “Les Misérables” continues its National Tour at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Drawing in an older crowd who were probably theater kids and nerds back when it debuted in the ‘80s, the hummable show returns in its “turntable-less” version to mixed results.
“Les Misérables” is a timeless masterpiece, adapted from Victor Hugo’s classic novel, and has been performed non-stop for the past four decades. It seamlessly blends elements of politics, drama, ethics, and morality into an elegantly tragic tale. The unforgettable musical score features iconic songs like “On My Own,” sung by the poor Eponine, and “I Dreamed a Dream,” famously performed by Patti Lupone in the original London production and later by Anne Hathaway in her Oscar-winning role in the film adaptation. The emotional “Bring Him Home” and the stirring “One Day More” are also standout numbers. However, the direction and pacing of the production leave something to be desired.
I have observed a trend in the past decade, particularly with another musical from the same group, “Miss Saigon,” where it seems that the show is on a fast track as if it has been accelerated to ensure that the audience is out of the theater and on their way home before eleven o’clock. Consequently, the performance feels hurried, the actors move more quickly than usual, and the storyline feels somewhat chaotic like we are receiving an abridged version of the musical even though the entire musical is being performed.
Actors lurch about the stage causing every emotional beat to be punctuated with almost violent movement and proclamations. This speed causes everything to be more heightened and as a result, most of the actors (as good as they are) are already at a 10, when they need to still be at a 6.
For example, as gorgeous as Haley Dortch’s voice is, her “I Dreamed a Dream” reached its crescendo after the first chorus. As a result, she had nowhere to go because she ended up performing the entire song at a fifteen.
A few moments were allowed to breathe, such as Christine Heesun Hwang’s “On My Own” and Nick Cartell’s “Bring Him Home.” Everything else felt like the entire cast had to get to a finish line, or they weren’t going to eat that night.
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, the show has a go-go-go feel to it that betrays the tragedy and tenderness of the story. Nothing is allowed to have its moment. Eponine’s death comes so swift, she and Marius were already in the middle of their final duet before I realized she had been shot. Addie Morales, as Cosette is a fine performer, but because of the swift direction, she comes across as frantic and needy as the gal pining for a man she just met.
The set and projections are beautiful, but I do think that the famous turntable and reveal of the barricade are missed here. The turntable provided a cinematic movement for the characters so while they might appear to be standing still, there was fluid movement around and behind them. Without it, the show feels smaller and more claustrophobic, sadl;y limiting its scope.
That said, I know that lovers of this musical will still find things to enjoy. The young cast is uniformly terrific with astounding vocals and endless energy. This is why it’s too bad some of this is lost to the hurried nature of this production. (There were times I couldn’t understand anything that was being sung because it felt like a 33-rpm record turned up to 45-rpm.)
I’m not alone in this criticism. I actually researched if there was a reason for this, but only found other reviewers and theatergoers commenting on the same observation. Hopefully, the tour will somehow take note and allow the actors time to draw us in. As it stands, this tale of love and despair is more messy than reflective.
“Les Misérables” runs from September 19 through October 1, 2023, at the Segerstrom Hall at the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts. For more info and tickets, visit www.scfta.org.