Les Miserables By Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg.
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Directed and Adapted by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. Associate Director: Shaun Kerrison. Original London production by Cameron Mackintosh and The Royal Shakespeare Company. New Orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke. Co-Orchestrator: Stephen Metcalfe. Original Orchestrations by John Cameron. Orchestral Adaptation and Musical Supervision: Stephen Brooker. Music Director: Kevin Stites. Sound by Jon Weston and Andrew Bruce/Autograph. Associate Lighting Designer: Ted Mather. Designed by John Napier. Lighting by David Hersey. Costumes by Anreane Neofitou. Cast: Alexander Gemignani, Norm Lewis, Doug Kreeger, Drew Sarich, Karen Elliott, JD Goldblatt, James Chip Leonard, Nehal Joshi, Jeff Kready, Robert Hunt, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Haviland Stillwell, Becca Ayers, Daniel Bogart, Justin Bohon, Kate Chapman, Nikki Renée Daniels, Karen Elliott, Marya Grandy, Blake Ginther, Victor Hawks, Megan McGinnis, Idara Victor, Celia Keenan-Bolger, Tess Adams, Kylie Liya Goldstein, Carly Rose Sonenclar, Gary Beach, Jenny Galloway, Brian D'addario, Jacob Levine, Austyn Myers, Ali Ewoldt, Aaron Lazar, Adam Jacobs.
Three forces have, over the course of our lifetimes, proved absolutely endemic to the human condition: the need for money, the insatiable yearning for freedom, and the British pop opera. When these three collide head on, there are bound to be casualties aplenty, and more profits than you can shake a platinum-plated pole at.
In that way, if not many others, you can claim the revival of Les Misérables at the Broadhurst has picked up the torch dropped by the original production when it ended its 16-year-run run a scant three years ago. But even that's a stretch: The songs are the same (mostly), the visuals are the same, the dozens of characters fighting for liberty and dying either for it or for someone else's are the same, but this isn't quite the same old show.
The spirit that once made Trevor Nunn and John Caird's adaptation of Victor Hugo's expansive novel a transcendent hit with millions across the globe has not reemerged with the design sketches and blocking notes. For that to happen, those behind this weary resurrection - producer Cameron Mackintosh and directors Nunn and Caird included, would need to view this show as a story worth telling freshly and cleanly, not a cash cow still ripe for the milking.
Unfortunately, aside from the cast size (nearly 40 performers), practically everything here screams bargain-basement reproduction. In most of its casting, in the way it looks, and especially in the way it sounds, this production feels as if it's been cobbled together from preexisting parts to create an extraordinarily average Les Misérables experience.
That might be fine for the eighth replacement company in the sixth year of the third national tour. But with Broadway know-how and, more importantly, Broadway ticket prices at play, audiences deserve better than an anemic mounting in which hardly a noteworthy new idea has been allowed to creep into the staging or characterizations and the orchestrations have been reduced to absurdly anorexic levels. Even John Napier's set looks tiny and cheap: The barricade that once elicited gasps and applause barely fills the Broadhurst stage and bows under the weight of the svelte chorus boys who climb about it at the show's climax.
What used to be a theatrical epic as electric as it was eclectic now exists solely to serve audiences' perceptions of it, and gives them little more than what they've come to expect over the last 20 years. That includes a lot of overblown staging on an endlessly revolving turntable, enough dry-ice fog for three productions of Brigadoon, and a score by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil (with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer) that bursts with hymns, anthems, and searing ballads leaving no feeling unexpressed and no room for psychological nuance. This Les Misérables is different from all others I've seen in only one significant way: slightly more respect for the craft of the replacement actor.
At last eviscerated from the central role of Jean Valjean, the ex-convict who breaks his parole and becomes a Christ-like figure capable of improving everyone's lot but his own, are the mush-mouthed vowels of the role's celebrated originator Colm Wilkinson: Alexander Gemignani is the first actor I've ever seen truly allowed to put himself into the role. Inspector Javert, who hunts Valjean for years, towers and broods less as played by Norm Lewis than by any other actor I've seen. Suffering waif Fantine, mother to the young girl Valjean raises as his own, has been liberated of her Biblical beltiness by a smaller, more inward-looking Daphne Rubin-Vega. And the spunky and whiny adolescent Eponine, whose life becomes tragically tangled with Valjean's, is no longer played by a whiny adolescent, but by the more energetically reserved Celia Keenan-Bolger.
If one must applaud these casting departures, their success is another matter. Gemignani might be the most individual Valjean in years, but he's also the most ridiculous: At 27, he's at least a decade too young for the role, and, vocally accomplished as he might be on all but the role's very highest notes, no old-age makeup or fright wig can make him believable as a man who lives his entire adult life on the run. His reverential "Bring Him Home" is gorgeously sung, but utterly lacking the soulful, sacrificial depth it needs to grab the heart. Keenan-Bolger is too college-sorority scrubbed to convince as the streetwise Eponine, and her big torch solo "On My Own," a mission statement for a generation of screechy teen actresses, is as emotionally negligible here as it usually is overwrought.
The more traditional casting is seldom better, with Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs (both Les Misérables tour veterans) stereotypically vapid as pretty young lovers Cosette and Marius, and Aaron Lazar a powerfully sung but unengaging student revolutionary leader. Only Gary Beach, reprising the role of "Master of the House" Thénardier he played during the original Los Angeles production, is a welcome return to the past; he comes closer than any actor I've seen to making the lecherous character's comedy bits seem newly crafted. Jenny Galloway, as Thénardier's wife, is highly able but unexceptional.
Rubin-Vega is more complicated. While she's both more fiery and more brittle than most Fantines, and better capable of navigating the intricate series of scenes leading her from factory to whoredom to deathbed, her rather ragged vocals are sure to disappoint those who expect Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" to set off seismometers in neighboring states. Her performance, however, is never less than interesting.
The production itself rarely rises as far, as it's only willing to make changes that don't really matter. Christopher Jahnke's reductive new orchestrations, some new costumes from original designer Andreane Neofitou, and a handful of new lyrics can't energize a show that looks every day of its 21 years.
Lewis stands as a firm example of all that's wrong with the production: Where others suffice, he astounds, redefining the staid Javert with a piercing energy and intensity. Perhaps others have sung "Stars" or his final musical monologue better, but no one's ever done so with more self-reflective passion or more effectively used them to justify Javert's crusade for righteous justice. Lewis's Javert evolves and travels a complete journey that makes him the sympathetic center of an otherwise lumbering enterprise.
When a colleague turned to me at intermission and suggested that Lewis should be playing Valjean, I couldn't argue. The idea only became more exciting as Lewis increasingly dominated the second act, projecting all the aged determination, fear, and wary watchfulness Gemignani is too unseasoned to yet authoritatively summon.
But though Lewis's Broadway career has counted magically memorable turns in
musicals like Side Show, The Wild Party, and Amour, in stature, manner, and
voice he's completely unlike any other American Valjean. Gemignani may
depart more than most from established tracks, but he still fits Wilkinson's
burly, bearlike mold; Lewis would break it in the most unpredictable and
invigorating ways possible. What a shame that Mackintosh and everyone else
associated with this production didn't feel that kind of gamble - like so
many others - was one they could afford to take.