Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Les Misérables at NJPAC at the Top of its Form

Also see Bob's review of One Way Ticket to Hell

A year ago after a run of 16 years, Cameron Mackintosh's hugely successful production of Les Misérables closed on Broadway. However, Mackintosh's national touring production continues on. Remarkably, the production is miraculously fresh and vital, a tribute to its producer and all those involved in its production and performance.

There are simply not enough superlatives to describe this production or its Jean Valjean. To start, Randal Keith, who was Broadway's last Valjean, sings like an angel, and brings passion, strength and a sense of total believability to the role. His "Bring Him Home" is gorgeous.

Pierce Peter Brandt (subbing for Stephen Tewksbury at the performance reviewed) is an exemplary Javert. His restraint in not overplaying the villainous aspects of Javert makes his suicide when he is made to face his inhumanity all the more believable. He sings with power and accuracy.

Virtually each featured and ensemble player is both vocally superb and clearly conveys the nuance, meaning and feeling of the lyrics. Tonya Dixon (Fantine), Ma-Anne Dionisio (Eponine), and Amanda Huddleston (Cosette) are each outstanding.

Also excellent is Josh Young, who is as handsome, persuasive and vocally excellent a Marius as one could hope for. Standout among the talented youngsters is the Gavroche of Daniel Wright. His pitch and agility with a lyric seem well beyond that of a child performer. The ensemble is excellent to a man (and woman). Especially compelling is Michael St. John whose strong voice and spirit capture attention in the roles of the Bishop who initially gives Valjean his start, and Lesgles, one of the idealistic students who meet their fate at the barricade.

Perhaps Michael Kostroff could bring more impishness to his Thenardier. He and Cindy Benson should achieve greater clarity with the lyric of "Beggars at the Feast". However, my quibbling both begins and ends here.

The energy, enthusiasm, and detail with which each member of the more than 30 strong cast brings to every role and scene are frankly incredible. The scenery looks as if it had been built last week, and the lighting effects (think the Paris sewer) are as impressive as ever. The sewer echo sound effect is less emphatic than it was on Broadway, but it is still terrific. Even the costumes are spiffy. I saw two long running Broadway musical productions last week and was disheartened at the mediocre condition into which they had fallen. Rest assured there is nothing tired or mediocre here.

It is hard to compare two performances almost seventeen years apart, but I will be so bold as to say that I think that Cameron Mackintosh's Les Misérables is playing better today than it did in its first year on Broadway. It then had a smooth, perfectly timed, never varying cinematic quality. I remember thinking that it was as perfect and effective as such a production could be, but was mechanistic and lacking in spontaneity.

Years later, I found that the Broadway production had lost its technical perfection and become unfocused. In fact, late in the run, Mackintosh replaced the entire Broadway cast in order to revitalize a production which he felt had lost its edge. I think road audiences are the current beneficiaries of Mackintosh's insistence on maintaining quality.

Certainly, it is a joy to see this looser, less high tech version, which allows the actors to breathe, being performed with so much focus and energy.

In 2004 in Cameron Mackintosh's equity national touring production, Les Misérables may be better than ever.

Les Misérables will continue performances through June 13 at New Jersey Performing Arts Center's Prudential Hall, One Center Street, Newark, N.J. 07102. Box Office: 973-466-5722; online

Les Misérables by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg; Music by Schonberg; Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Cast: Michelle Aravena (Ensemble); Cindy Benson (Madame Thenardier); Daniel Bogart (Babet); Charlie Brady (Feuilly): Pierce Peter Brandt (Javert); John-Andrew Clark (Enjolras); Matt Clemens (Combeferre; Dance Captain); Ma-Anne Dionisio (Eponine); Tonya Dixon (Fantine); Kip Driver (Montparnasse); Karen Elliott (Ensemble); David Michael Felty (Brujon); Heather Ferguson (Ensemble); Steve Gannon (Courfeyrac); Charles Hagerty (Joly); Amanda Huddleston (Cosette); Linda Pierson Huff (Ensemble); Nadine Jacobson (Young Cosette); Erika Kiyomi Johnson (Young Eponine); Randal Keith (Jean Valjean); Michael Kostroff (Thenardier); James Chip Leonard (Claquesous); Gina Milo (Ensemble); Marnie Nicolella (Ensemble); Christopher Mark Peterson (Bamatabois); Shahara Ray (Ensemble); Michael St. John (Lesgles); Rena Strober (Ensemble); Ryan Williams (Jean Prouvaire); Daniel Wright (Gavroche);  Josh Young (Marius).

Photo: Carlos Somonte

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Bob Rendell

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