The Siegel Column

4 Stars: Les Misérables

Let's get one thing settled before we say a word about this particular production of Les Miz: it's a brilliant piece of popular art that has the power, all these years later, to bring these two critics to tears. It may be hard to believe after Urinetown, Avenue Q, and [title of show], that there is nothing self-referential about this musical. There is no smug mockery of the genre in its book or score. There is only a certain majesty in its epic scope, and a sure-handed skill in the telling of its tale. There can be better or worse productions of this show, but it is such a beautifully crafted piece of work that on the barricade of Broadway it can withstand attacks from every direction, whether it be miscast actors or hatchet-wielding critics. If the people of Paris did not rise up to join the students in their fight against tyranny, the people of the world have certainly risen up to pay the ultimate price (of $100 or more per ticket) to have their souls stirred and their hearts touched.

This particular production of Les Misérables seems like a musical that was mounted by The Public Theater. Color blind casting rules, coupled with a clear cut decision to cut a swath through contemporary Broadway. Some of those casting decisions have backfired, but at least this new mounting of the show isn't peopled by TV and movie stars stealing roles away from dedicated theater professionals. A general observation is that the major roles were largely cast for actor/singers rather than singer/actors.

Like Ethel Merman in Gypsy or Robert Preston in The Music Man, there is no point in comparing any actor to Colm Wilkinson in the original Les Misérables. Among mortals, however, give Alexander Gemignani high praise, indeed, as the heroic Jean Valjean. He invests the role with a moral fervor that is palpable; we've seen the show many times, with a variety of casts, and he acts the role exceedingly well and hits every impossible note. Norm Lewis plays his nemesis, Inspector Javert, with such a steely ferocity that he doesn't always allow for a subtext. Worse, his beautiful baritone is harnessed in a key that doesn't allow his voice to soar.

If this was the movie version of the show, Daphne Rubin-Vega might very well be cast as Fantine, as she is on Broadway, because her acting of the role is superb. But in the movie, her singing would be dubbed by someone with a dynamic range. Sadly, Rubin-Vega is not up to the vocal demands of "I Dreamed a Dream." Not even close. Celia Keenan-Bolger comes much closer to the mark as Eponine; her acting is untouchable and her singing of "On My Own," if not thrilling, is pretty damned good. Particularly disappointing is Gary Beach as Thenardier; he wants to be liked too much and plays the role too much like a clown rather than the opportunistic bloodsucker Thenardier really is. On the other hand, Jenny Galloway as Madame Thenardier is more grounded in the muck and gives a smartly shaded performance. Adam Jacobs as Marius and Ali Ewoldt as Cosette are solid, if unmemorable. But Aaron Lazar, as the leader of the student rebellion, Enjolras, is stunning. He's going to leap from that barricade right into leading man roles on Broadway; he has the right look, he can act, and he's got a voice that won't quit.

Finally, it's a bit of a joke that Les Misérables is back on Broadway in a revival just a little over three years after it closed following a sixteen year run. But maybe it never should have left.

3 ½ Stars Dr Seuss' How The Grinch Stole Christmas!

There is a lot to recommend in this family musical, not the least of which is its length. Clocking in at less than ninety minutes, this thin but colorful extravaganza doesn't wear out its welcome. Fun costumes by Robert Morgan, delightful set design by John Lee Beatty, and an engaging cast led by Patrick Page in the title role and John Cullum in a dog suit (hey, he looks happy) keep the eyes and ears from shutting down in the face of oftentimes dull music and lyrics. When not pedestrian, the songs are down right derivative: we assure you, for instance, that the song "Santa For a Day," performed by one of two alternating young girls, will make you think for a moment that you're hearing "Tomorrow" from Annie.

The best and only truly Broadway-style number in the show is "One of a Kind," performed by Page as a high-stepping, brassy tune about his singular (if nasty) nature as The Grinch. It's the oddest sort of message, but the intent of the musical is to strip him of his singularity. Be that as it may, he's still green at the end of the show. [We expect a photo op of Elphaba and The Grinch is in our future.]

Barbara and Scott Siegel