Hayden Tee as Javert (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Question: Why is Les Misérables considered by many to be the greatest musical of all time?

Answer: It’s a compelling character-driven story, with powerful acting, timeless music, and impressive set design. Those elements, which drove the musical to prominence in the 1980s, were on display at the show’s opening night performance at the Providence Performing Arts Center Tuesday.

The show has deep roots – “Les Miz” is the second longest-running production in London and the sixth longest ever on Broadway. Indeed, the bar is high for the Tony-award-winning revival from acclaimed producer Cameron Mackintosh. And although a few noticeable audio issues were evident early on, they didn’t diminish the overall experience. As expected, the performance was outstanding on all levels.

For those unfamiliar with the narrative, here’s a quick summary.

Set in France in the early 19th century, “Les Miz” is a story of struggle and transformation. Jean Valjean, previously jailed for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is freed from prison and through an encounter with a bishop is transformed into a man on a quest for righteousness. He becomes a factory owner, a gentleman, and a father figure to Cossette who he rescues from an abusive family, the Thenardiers.

Throughout, he is pursued by the relentless Inspector Javert, who only knows law and order, and has a deep underlying, although often misguided, faith in God. The characters get caught up in the Paris revolts of 1832, leading to memorable scenes at the barricades. Cossette falls for Marius, a student fighting for freedom. A love triangle ensues, involving Eponine, the downcast daughter of the Thenardiers, played particularly well by Christine Heesun Hwang. High drama ensues…

Les Misérables does what good theater does best, it plunges you into a world where you care about the fate of the characters, including even the obsessive Javert, who is neither villain nor hero. In the end, you appreciate his regret for not achieving his goal and mourn his death. It’s a world where no one is perfect, but all can be redeemed… except maybe the Thenardiers, who are there to provide much-needed comic relief.

Cast of Les Misérables (Photo: Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade, provided by PPAC)

The set design for the touring production is impressive, enhancing the overall feel of the performance. The scene at the barricades is particularly well-designed, resembling a painting of the era. And the ever-changing backdrops set the scenes throughout the show.

Needless to say, the music is timeless, a level or two above typical Broadway fare. The leads were robust, with Nick Cartell’s Valjean and Hayden Tee’s Javert standing out. The full ensemble pieces “Do You Hear the People Sing” and “At the End of the Day” were especially memorable.

Inherently, Broadway revivals run the risk of feeling, well, old and dusty. This production has done a commendable job of avoiding that label, and although it does not have the hip-hop fast-paced energy of Hamilton, the music and story behind “Les Miz” make it as thrilling and relevant today as it was before.

This is a story of redemption, reward, and a bit of treachery; tragic on many levels yet ultimately uplifting. That’s what made it so popular before and still does today. The message is timeless: “Les Miz” offers hope for a better future. Although it might sound a tad cliché, “Les Miz” truly represents the human experience, for better or worse.

Les Misérables is playing at the Providence Performing Arts Center through Sunday November 20. Click here for tickets.

Ken Abrams

Lifestyle Editor Ken Abrams writes about music, the arts and more for What'sUpNewp. He is also a contributor to Providence Monthly, SO RI, Hey Rhody and The Bay magazines.
Ken DJ's "The Kingston Coffeehouse," a roots/folk/rock radio show every Tuesday, 6-9 PM on WRIU 90.3 FM. He is a former educator in the Scituate, RI school system where he taught Social Studies for over 30 years.
Ken is presently on the board of the Rhode Island Folk Festival and Newport Live (formerly Common Fence Music), a non-profit that brings diverse musical acts to the Newport area.