Thrilling Les Miz playing in Providence should be a bucket list item for everyone

The company of LES MISÉRABLES performs “One Day More." photo provided by Les Miserables National Tour
The company of LES MISÉRABLES performs “One Day More." photo provided by Les Miserables National Tour /

I’ve always considered Les Misérables—known affectionately as “Les Miz”—the perfect musical. And I’m happy to say that after seeing it decades later at the Providence Performing Arts Center, it really lived up to that proclamation.

There is just no fat in the production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Tony Award-winning musical. Based on the riveting novel by Victor Hugo (which I’ve read), the sensational story packs in powerhouse performances, enthralling characters, sweeping music, and iconic songs, all set against the dramatic backdrop of the historical French Revolution. The production weaves all these engrossing elements into a storytelling paradigm where every moment counts.

Almost every song in the production can be considered among the best Broadway songs to ever be belted out in a theater. You’ve heard the tunes before (“I Dreamed a Dream,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?” “One Day More”), but this in no way diminishes from the impact of hearing these iconic songs performed in their theatrical setting. Even though Cameron Macintosh’s production of Les Misérables was staged in the 1980s, the musical phenomenon stands the test of time and proves the timeless brilliance of the production’s constant relevance with themes of injustice, love, forgiveness, redemption, war, and hope.

In fact, I can’t think of any other musical with so many numbers that transcend the actual production. Is there another song like “I Dreamed a Dream” that encapsulates the youthful hope of life being crushed under the weight of harrowing circumstances? Or the cynicism of fraudulent landlords like the Thenardiers in “Master of the House?” “Red and Black” captures the spirit of the youthful exuberance of the French Revolution. And who wouldn’t be moved by those same youths cut down in their prime, whose spirits are paid tribute to in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” (beautifully staged with candles representing each lost soldier and equally sung by Gregory Lee Rodriguez)? And Valjean’s line at the end, “to love another is to see the face of God” still packs an emotional punch all these years later. There were quite a few sniffles heard in the last moments, myself included.

The transition songs are almost as good as the hits, like “Lovely Ladies” and “Who am I?” which is what I mean about the production having no downtime: every minute counts. But a great Les Misérables rests on the shoulders of the two main leads, Jean Valjean (Nick Cartell) and Inspector Javert (Hayden Tee), both of whom hail from previous productions and reign supreme in this one. Cartell and Tee have a commanding presence in their roles, equally bringing down the house in their marquee numbers, with Cartell holding the audience enraptured with the lyrical “Bring Him Home.” Contrastingly, Tee embodies all the conflicting emotions that lead him to his awe-inspiringly staged end in “Soliloquy.” Additionally, the rest of the cast is excellent, with the Bishop (Randy Jeter) who inspires Valjean’s path of salvation, and Eponine (Christine Heesun Hwang) as particular standouts (her “On My Own” stunned).

The audience on opening night gave the production an instant standing ovation. You could hear notable gasps throughout as attendees were obviously thrilled to not only see such an iconic production but one that far exceeded their expectations. That also included my 14-year-old daughter. It’s always a gamble bringing a teenager to a performance that is over three decades old. Not only was she completely blown away by the production, but I’m happy to report that she is now embarking on reading the original novel by Hugo.

In other words, Les Misérables after all these years can still be considered the gold standard of musical theater. It’s playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday, November 20. More information can be found at Les Misérables continues its tour throughout the nation. This is a bucket list must-see.