It is hard to believe that it has been over a decade since I last saw Les Miserables, and over thirteen years since I saw the original production in London. It is even harder to believe that I saw it before it was "Les Mis" and went into it with no expectations, other than I was about to see the biggest bomb in recorded history. I mean, really ... a musical adaptation by two unknown Frenchmen of a 1,500 page classic? Sounded like a perfect recipe for disaster to me. Of course, that preconceived notion lasted about five minutes, and by the end of the show I was an emotional wreck.
Since Les Miserables is billed as "the world's most popular musical," I doubt anybody reading this is unfamiliar with the plot. But just in case, Les Miserables is based on the classic novel by Victor Hugo (scribe of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well). The driving force is Jean Valjean, an ex-con sentenced to an eternity of being chased by a policeman, Javert, for stealing a loaf of bread. Their chase leads to the barricades of the French Revolution (to paraphrase Forbidden Broadway ... no, not the big important one, but a little one you don't know anything about) where the show winds up living up to the 'miserable' portion of its title.
After seeing Les Mis again, I was amazed at how well it has held up through the years. Les Miserables was the first strike of the British Musical invasion (Evita and JC Superstar serving as advance scouts) and set the stage for the big, bloated epics which are finally fizzling out on both sides of the Atlantic. Seeing it again reminded me how stark it really is. Everybody leaves remembering barricade, but the majority of the show has almost no scenery; just a set piece or two that gets revolved on by the turntable. I also noticed how much Les Mis is, by turns, Shakespearean and Brechtian in nature. Many of the songs are really forth-wall shattering soliloquies delivered directly to the audience; not as monologues, not as cries to the heavens, but to us, to explain themselves or make comments on society.
Many of these comments belong to the comic duo of Les Mis, the Thenardiers. Les Miserables is brilliant in its leavening the angst and tragedy of the story with humor. Not since Sweeney Todd has a show used comedy so effectively as a tool to break the mood and set you up for the next tragedy (and unfortunately, very few shows since have learned the lesson. You have to look hard to find humor in Jekyll and Hyde or even Ragtime). In this touring version, they are well played by J.P Dougherty and Aymee Garcia. Aymee in particular was delightful. It was the first time that I had seen Madame Thenardier not portrayed with the same broad, Comedia strokes of her husband. Instead, she was darker, earthier, more bitter and shrewd, and therefore more funny and real.
The cast, while possessing voices ranging from very good to glorious, for the most part suffered from a lack of distinctive energy and characterization. At times, it felt like I was seeing a fifth generation Xerox, where the people are doing what they should, but without the edge to bring it fully to life. Ivan Rutherford, who played Valjean in the 10th Anniversary company, reprised his role for this tour. Vocally he was wonderful, and he was effective in the second act, especially with "Bring Him Home." Stephen Bishop lacked the edge to make for a truly chilling Javert, but sounded great. Joan Almedilla, as Fantine, lacked the powerful high belt necessary for "I Dreamed a Dream," but had a strong lower range and brought a sense of lost dignity to the role. One small quibble, though: Joan played Kim in Miss Saigon on Broadway. While I am a big fan of color blind casting, and applaud Les Miserables for its history of non-traditional casting, I wish that they had followed the rules of genetics, since Cosette was the blondest, WASP-iest character on stage.
In fact, Eponine looked as if she could have been Fantine's daughter, and made me wonder if perhaps the Thenardiers had accidentally switched children at some point. But I would not have had her switch parts and deprive us from an incredible performance solely for genetics' sake. Sutton Foster not only made the part her own, but she breathed new life into "On My Own," making me feel like I was hearing the lyrics for the first time. This girl should get her own show and soon, for I would not be surprised to her break out ala Kristin Chenoweth in the future.
Tim Howar as Marius also made the part his own, making him much younger and more vacuous than previous Marius' I have seen. For the first time I believed that this character was a follower who gets swept up with love as much as with revolution, instead of the powerhouse he usually is portrayed as.
Overall, this tour is very serviceable. While lacking the spark and energy to make it the breathtaking work it could be, this production still manages pull the heartstrings and prove why it is still going strong all over the world.
Les Miserables is at the Fifth Avenue Theater through November 13th. For ticket information call 206-292-2787