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Les Misérables

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.
Theatre: Imperial Theatre, 249 West 45th Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue
Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes with one intermission
Audience: May be inappropriate for 9 and under. (Contains themes related to complex and difficult subject matter including social revolution, poverty and prostitution.) Children under the age of 4 are not permitted in the theatre.
Schedule: Tues 7 pm, Wed 2 pm, Wed 8 pm, Th 8 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm
Tickets: Telecharge

Les Misérables: The Barricade
Photo by Matthew Murphy

One anticipates some assimilation from those who move to the United States, though one would expect it perhaps a bit before the 27th anniversary of arriving in this country. But operating on the time-honored philosophy of “better late than never,” the thoroughly British musical by two thoroughly French writers, Les Misérables, has reopened at the Imperial and, at long last, shown itself to be thoroughly American.

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 theirs—and, for better or worse, well and truly ours.

With John Napier's epic scenic design—including, yes, that turntable—all 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 personality—and plenty of it. Each member of the company, from Ramin Karimloo as parole breaker–turned–prophet 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 case—Valjean must demonstrate his worth to man and God alike, the Inspector Javert (Will Swenson) his absolute fidelity to the law, and so on—this 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 stateliness—it 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 musical—safe, inexpensive, easier than ever to tour—and, 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-conceived—a 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.

Ramin Karimloo
Photo by Matthew Murphy

When Javert looks like a hipster dressing as a policeman for Halloween, and Swenson appears to be suppressing giggles throughout most of his performance (including his first act aria, “Stars”), and Andy Mientus's Marius appears dazed in battle, romance, and reflection scenes (“Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”) alike, it's difficult to be transported. Of the smaller roles, only Nikki M. James, who attractively balances sympathy and street smarts as Éponine (and plows through an appropriately understated “On My Own”), and Jason Forbach and John Rapson as an unusually thrilling Feuilly and a surprisingly involved Grantaire, strike the proper tone.

Then there's Karimloo. Though rather young and considerably more heartthrobby than most Valjeans, he's truly excellent—the 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 missteps—the 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” light—the 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 American—for now and, hopefully, years to come.

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