Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Les Misérables
National Tour
Review by Patrick Thomas

Also see Patrick's recent review of Atomic Comic, a Human Cartoon Fantasia

Matt Crowle and Cast
Photo by Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
Les Misérables, the musical written by Claude-Michel Schönberg (music/book), Alain Boublil (book), Herbert Kretzmer (English lyrics), and Jean-Mark Natel (original French text with Boublil), with additional material by James Fenton, is perhaps the most popular musical ever made. BroadwaySF, who have brought the national touring company to town for a three-week run at the Orpheum, certainly tout the show as such, and judging by the packed house at this week's opening, it's hard to refute.

That said, it has never been popular with this theatre fan. When I first saw it at the Curran, more than 30 years ago, I was less than impressed. To my mind, the show lacked dynamic range. Except for the numbers "Master of the House" and "Bring Him Home," it felt to me the show was always cranked up to 11. Even the biggest hit, "I Dreamed a Dream," blurs the boundary between ballad and anthem.

Despite that, I went to the Orpheum with an open mind, and was blown away by this production. I still don't like the show, but I couldn't help but be impressed by the magnificent staging, gorgeous lighting, updated orchestrations (by Stephen Metcalfe), and supremely talented cast.

From the first moment to the last, the staging is incredible. Lighting designer Paule Constable has kept things a little dark and hazy, a sort of chiaroscuro approach to theatre, but it still shows off Matt Kinney's sets to perfection. The scene changes are nearly seamless and perfectly evoke 19th century France. The barricades (which dominated the production I first saw to the point of being the only set element I remember from that tour) here are more dimensional and imposing and architectural. Houses, apartment buildings, taverns seem to appear almost magically, so smooth and elegant are the transition between scenes. (Kudos to directors Laurence Connor and James Powell.) And the moment when Javert meets his end is a stunning practical effect; the impact of a similar effect on film might be more realistic, but far less powerful.

The cast of this touring company is incredibly strong, with clear, powerful voices. As Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell is marvelously plastic–from Valjean's youthful days on a chain gang (represented here as a slave galley) to his final breath, Cartell seems to age bit by bit in a way that seems effortless, but is clearly the effect of a skilled physical performer and (I'm guessing) some offstage makeup changes. Haley Dortch imbues Fantine with a sweetness that makes the cruelties imposed upon her all the more touching. And she slays her key number, "I Dreamed a Dream." Matt Crowle imbues Thénardier, the crooked innkeeper, with a bony sharpness and unctuous charm that is a delight to watch–and quite hiss-worthy, though the audience restrained themselves.

The audience did not, however, restrain their applause, as it was clear the crowd at the Orpheum were swept away by the spectacle of this Les Misérables. But despite all this professional excellence, it still failed to move me. It's a musical in ALL CAPS. And just as a tweet or Facebook post presented that way is almost always worthy of mocking, so it is with a terrific production of a musical that I, personally, simply can't stand.

Les Misérables runs through July 23, 2023, at SHN's Orpheum Theatre, 1182 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $60.50-$255.50. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 888-746-1799 or visit For more information on the tour, visit