Review: A solid ‘Les Miz’ at Fresno’s Saroyan Theatre remains as rousing as ever. But, for the love of Victor Hugo, I miss the turntable.

By Donald Munro

Writing a review of “Les Miserables” at the Saroyan Theatre brings back memories. I’ve seen the show there on several occasions. In 1999 – the last time the classic version of the musical toured through town, according to producers – I remember the Fresno Bee was still worried about print deadlines. The editors wanted an “overnight” review, meaning it would appear in the next morning’s paper. My deadline was 11:30 p.m.

Pictured above: Preston Truman Boyd plays Javert in “Les Miserables.” Photo: Evan Zimmerman

The challenge: The show didn’t get over until 10:55 p.m. As the curtain call began, I leapt from my seat and raced for my car to get back to the newsroom. No sweat, I thought. With no traffic, I’ll be there in no time. What I’d forgotten was the traffic lights. They weren’t operated by sensors downtown (and perhaps still aren’t), and as I (tried to) race down Van Ness, I was stopped at nearly every intersection by an interminable red light. Fuming, I lurched my way back to the Bee, which was across the railroad tracks on E Street. When I arrived at the newsroom, it was 11:17 p.m. The copy desk kindly gave me an extra 10 minutes. I’ve never written so fast.

By that time, 12 years after its Broadway opening, the show had lost a bit of the surprise-slash-wow factor, thanks to it being so strongly in the cultural spotlight. (We all knew about the turntable, for one thing.) But I remember being wowed by the thrilling singing and the overall spectacle, nevertheless.


“Les Miserables” returned to the Saroyan on Tuesday night in a slightly different form. The national tour is based on the Broadway revival that opened in 2014. Gone is the revolutionary turntable that rarely seemed to stop, delivering scenery, actors and a near-constant feel of motion. Now the stage seems smaller, darker, and more melancholy, with laser projectors offering many of the moody visuals. (Many of them were painted by Victor Hugo.) After seeing the show in the same theater nearly 20 years ago, the experience of seeing the newer version was like meeting a fellow high-school 25th reunion classmate who’s had a facelift and tummy tuck. They can still seem young and vibrant, but there’s a tiredness in the eyes.

A quick summary of what I thought of this most recent incarnation of the show: It’s solid, dependable, and as rousing as ever. The vocals soar, even with two understudies filling major roles on opening night. (I wouldn’t expect less from an Equity tour.) However, there’s a whiff of the museum about the production. Though powerful and emotive, cutting-edge it’s not.


The tweaking in this revival is minimal compared to other classic musicals in recent years; my colleague James Ward of the Visalia Times-Delta has some interesting thoughts in his “Les Miz” review about recent, more radical, reboots, such as “Oklahoma.” We have not reached that point with “Les Miz.” I’m guessing that at some point there will be a “Les Miz” revival that, say, reimagines Jean Valjean as an aging punk rocker and sets the action in a dismal, sweltering, climate-change-decimated Paris. Or maybe go sci-fi and set it on Saturn’s third moon, with space citizen Valjean tossed in jail for stealing an oxygen converter for his sister’s pod housing unit. But not as long as Cameron Mackintosh (and likely his heirs) are around to protect it.

One piece of praise to highlight above anything else is Nick Cartell’s performance as Jean Valjean. His “Bring Him Home” soared. It’s the best I’ve experienced. This was no flimsy falsetto fluttering among the rafters. Cartell’s strong tenor voice was muscular and true. And yet he modulated it with such tenderness and warmth that it was hypnotic. Considering that the entire show pretty much rises and falls on the strength of your Valjean, the mastery of Cartell imbued the entire experience with a gravitas and authenticity you can’t achieve any way else.

Some other observations on the show and the performance:

I miss the turntable. Really, truly, I do. Without it, “The One Day More” number feels to me like it’s in a video game, with the actors in formation sweeping forward as the video projections provide the motion. To me, it felt like CGI. I see enough of that in the movies. Also, because of the lack of said turntable, poor Enjolras (Devin Archer) winds up in this version getting stuffed upside down in a farm cart. In the older version, the character was given a little more dignity when he was shown to be splayed against the barricade, a moment revealed in all its stunning despair when the turntable revolved to show the other side. I always appreciated that moment. I think it opened up the audience’s perspective, if you will. It also looked really cool.

Evan Zimmerman

Nick Cartell, as Jean Valjean, sings “Bring Him Home” in the national tour of “Les Miserables.”

Some critics have bashed “Les Miserables,” particularly in recent years, for its pop-opera score. They say it’s old-fashioned and monotonous. I understand that Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score isn’t as musically sophisticated as some would like. And, yes, “Les Miz” really does push to the limit the number of soaring ballads that can be power-hosed over an audience before causing at least a few heads to explode. But I love those songs. They’re like dear friends. (At least like dear friends you see every half decade or so.) I don’t think I could take an evening of vocal vociferousness every night of the week, but once in a while, it’s nice to bask in excess. So what if Jean Valjean sings so many show-stoppers? It’s worth it.

In that regard, I was really taken with Christopher James Tamayo’s understudy performance as Marius, which seemed fresh and youthful. (I could have done without the fake sideburns, which looked duct-taped on.) He was paired with another understudy, Daelynn Carter Jorie, as Eponine, who built to a robust and memorable belt in “On My Own.” I’ll throw in one more vocal/acting credit: Preston Truman Boyd’s Javert offered a scruffier, more battle-weary energy than I’ve seen from many in the role, which I found to be very astute.

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Even without the turntable, there are striking visual moments in this production. When we’re introduced to the streets of Paris, the massive three-story set opens like the magnificent doors of a cathedral, then rolls on with grandeur. When the barricade first rolls forward, framed by four piercing spotlights through the fog on either side, it has such an ominous Death Star vibe that I actually shuddered. And in a moment of extreme subtlety that is prelude to a whopping visual effect, the last moments of Javert’s “Soliloquy” begin with his head in near darkness. Then a smudge of light strokes his face his face just before the end occurs. I thought it was stunning.

  One more note, and it’s a weird, and perhaps too political, one to introduce into this review. But it really struck me during this viewing of “Les Miz.” I got definite Jan. 6 vibes from the barricade scenes. Perhaps it was the flags being waved around, and the crunched-up furniture, and the mob-mentality nature of the assault itself. Did I mention the waving flags? One of the great flaws of “Les Miz” has always been its complete lack of context about what the students are actually fighting for. (Most audiences assume it’s about the French Revolution, which is only about 40 years off.) Because the history is pretty much erased in the musical version, it reduces the stakes. And it’s a reminder that when a message is heavy on emotion and short on facts, it leaves everyone open for manipulation. Before you storm the barricades, be sure you really know what you’re fighting for.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (4)

  • JMW

    I’d actually like to see a “Les Miz” set in the dystopian future.

  • Sarah Gonzales

    My husband and I both agree, it lacked movement. Devin Archer was phenomenal- never seen/heard an Enjolras shine so bright!

  • Yep- people constantly think Les Mis takes place during The French Revolution.

    However, it the uprising is actually The June Rebellion of 1832 (I only know this due to being obsessed with the musical). My 7th time seeing the stage show was January 2023- The US Tour and loved it. Like always, an emotional wreck. But still wished the years were up- that does explain things a little

  • Scott Johnson

    No comment for Les Miz….however, if you are a fan of “The Jersey Boys”…I strongly recommend you pack the car and head to the historic Fallon House Theater in historic Columbia. You are in for a treat…get ready to sing along and enjoy this four men singing under a spotlight…each with their own version of a story/life….and remember, “Y” is a lousy letter….doesn’t know if it’s a vowel or a consonant….but those voices soar and you’ll be on your feet at the end. Then, head to the corner saloon for a cold sasparilla and some local music.


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