Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 23, 2014
Les Misérables A musical based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Claude-Michele Schönberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Original orchestrations by John Cameron. New orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, and Stephen Brooker. Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Lighting by Paule Constable. Costume design by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland. Set and image design by Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Projections realized by Fifty-Nine Productions. Sound by Mick Potter. Musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt.
Not that there have been drastic rewritings of what over the last quarter-century have become sacrosanct musical (by Claude-Michele Schönberg) and lyrical (by Herbert Kretzmer, working from Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's Gallic versions) interpretations of Victor Hugo's novel. Sure, there are a few tweaks, mostly to smudge up moments that had previously catered to older-fashioned delicacy, and the typical handful of cuts have been maintained to keep the sung-through show safely under three hours. Even so, on the page, this is essentially Les Misérables as it's always been.
On the stage, however, it's a different matter. For this, the second Broadway revival since the original production closed in 2003 after more than 16 years (most of them at the Imperial), the work of inaugural directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird has all but been obliterated. Though certain moments will echo with a bit of familiarity for diehard fans, and many of Andreane Neofitou's costumes are still in place (augmented with additional work from Christine Rowland), new directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have ensured that this production is well and truly theirsand, for better or worse, well and truly ours.
With John Napier's epic scenic designincluding, yes, that turntableall gone, and replaced by Matt Kinley's simpler sets and excellent, evocative projections based on Hugo's own paintings, and Paule Constable's restrained lighting, things don't even look the same. There's a more acutely realistic feel in the countryside of the early scenes, the workhouses a few scenes after, and the teeming Paris slums later still. From shadowy bridges to ramshackle cafés to echoing alleys, this is a world too easy to recognize. And the people who populate this world are utterly within it, never creating (as was the case with the original production) postcard-like tableaux that imply action rather than depict it.
Then there's the personalityand plenty of it. Each member of the company, from Ramin Karimloo as parole breakerturnedprophet Jean Valjean on down, is completely invested in telling this story. The performances here, unlike those in the 2006 revival, are in no way faded photocopies, excitement surges through every scene as if to suggest that everyone has something significant to prove. As the story makes the same caseValjean must demonstrate his worth to man and God alike, the Inspector Javert (Will Swenson) his absolute fidelity to the law, and so onthis works as well.
But even great ideas can go too far, and in distancing themselves from the specifics of the first Les Misérables, Connor and Powell have also lost sight of quite a bit of what made it unlike any musical before it.
Those tableaux, that turntable, that statelinessit all telegraphed Nunn and Caird's show as One for the Ages, and in many ways the most mega of the era's mega-musicals. Everything was oversized because it had to be, there was no other way to digest redemption as total as Valjean's, obsession as deep as Javert's, young love as pure as Marius and Cosette's, tragedy as sweeping as that of the boys on the barricade. If it didn't envelop you, it didn't affect you at all, and the staging, acting, writing, and everything else reflected this.
By going small, Connor and Powell make Les Misérables look like a 2014 Broadway musicalsafe, inexpensive, easier than ever to tourand, um, not always a musical drama.
The opening chain gang scene lacks threat and hopelessness. The fight Fantine has in the factory before she must sell herself to save her daughter, has all its edges sanded down, and the actress playing her, Caissie Levy, takes things so internally that you're alienated from (and not moved by) her potentially shattering solo, I Dreamed a Dream. The scheming, profiteering Thenardiers (Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle), always comic relief, are so cartoonish and buffoonish they represent no serious interruption of Valjean's holy order. Kinley's barricade looks neither dominating nor dominated, but half-conceiveda structure in search of a purpose, an attitude reflected in both student revolutionary leader Enjolras (Kyle Scatliffe) and his brave crusaders for freedom. And on and on.
Then there's Karimloo. Though rather young and considerably more heartthrobby than most Valjeans, he's truly excellentthe best I've ever seen live. (Admittedly, I missed Colm Wilkinson.) He expertly guides Valjean from street-rat rage to godly authority, and sings with soul-deep fire and flawless high notes that do justice to nearly every song. Only in the hymn-like Bring Him Home do Karimloo's gentler emotions fail to convince, but otherwise he communicates every nuance of the resentment, danger, love, and hope that are so crucial to propelling the action.
Karimloo provides a necessary human anchor, but the throbbing richness should not be undersold. For all the mounting's misstepsthe grating broadness of so many of the performances, the lack of definitiveness in Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, and Stephen Brooker's toned-down versions of John Cameron's orchestrations, Constable's bewilderingly hyperactive use of a pure-white God lightthe power of the material is unmistakable and unavoidable.
During both One Day More at the end of Act I, and the Act II finale, and a few other points in between, you'll be fighting off chills and the urge to stand and cheer. Even when the stage is too vacant and the actors too overeager, nothing can hide the fact that, at its best, this is modern musical theatre at its best. This is the most vibrant and alive the show has been in years, and something our homegrown shows should carefully note and emulate. Until they do, I'm proud to consider this Les Misérables, imperfect though it may be, an honorary Americanfor now and, hopefully, years to come.