Les Miserables Review: Darkened Stages, Brilliant Broadway Cast

When the grim-faced actors in the revival of “Les Miserables” man the barricades and wave the red flag at the Imperial, to my surprise, I didn’t just see red.
For this third production on Broadway, the producers and directors have made choices that have won me over…mostly. It’s hard to call this Les Miz low-key exactly, but it is less of an assault on the senses.  Paule Constable has created a spare, focused lighting design, making most scenes seem dark and dusty. There are few special effects, but what is done is done well, especially the video projection of the dangerous sewers to which our hero escapes. Yes, there is the requisite stage smoke, and some bulky-looking sets that quickly move in and out by computer, but the backdrops are paintings based on sketches by Victor Hugo himself.  The 20-member orchestra plays the tuneful score without the 1980’s amped-up feel of the original; there is no longer any electronic keyboard. But, above all, what makes this “Les Miserables” appealing even to those of us who retain reservations about the show’s conception, are the performances. This is a cast full of familiar faces shown in a new light, and talent new to Broadway that will bowl you over.

Click on any photograph to enlarge it.

Don’t Ask Me What Your Sacrifice Was For

As I wrote when the film of Les Miserables was released at the end of 2012,  I was always struck by the song in Les Miz, “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables,” when Marius sings “Don’t ask me what your sacrifice was for.”  Don’t ask me either; they never bother to explain.

Hugo’s nineteenth century novel is a sprawling, complex work that centers on the story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, then hounded by Javert, his prison guard and later a policeman, for breaking his parole. Like Charles Dickens, Hugo wrote “Les Miserables” as a blazing call to action against the injustices of the age. Hugo’s first words in the novel: “So long as the three great problems of the century – the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light – are unsolved…books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

In condensing Hugo’s pointed 1,000-page novel into an operatic Broadway musical a century later, composer and librettist Claude-Michel Schönberg with co-librettist Alain Boublil and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer pumped up the volume and played down the substance. There is little attempt to connect the suffering of that era to our own, nor even to show how the oppressive conditions led to rebellion. The result struck me as largely laughable or insufferable. The “revolutionaries” come off like kids playing war, rebels without a cause, puffing up their chests and posing as toy heroes under melodramatic lighting.

There are still too many empty gestures on crowded stages in the Les Miz at the Imperial. But there is definitely a change. In past productions, I wasn’t moved when the pint-sized street urchin waves the flag before the parapet in support of the (unexplained) cause and then is shot multiple times, jerking his body dramatically at each shot, and then dying in a heap. I reacted by shaking my head and literally laughing.

This time I was moved.  In the earlier productions, a turntable revolved to bring us both behind the barricade and in front of it.  The turntable is gone now. We only see the revolutionaries behind the barricades. Little Gavroche (Gaten Matarazzo in the performance I saw) climbs to the top of the barricade, there is the sound of a single shot, a bright light, a frozen moment, and then he falls. That’s it. A comrade then lifts his fallen body.  It works.

Stellar performances

Caissey Levy, who was splendid in Ghost and as Sheila in Hair, gives a fine if unexceptional performance as Fantine, a role that is close to thankless for two reasons. First, her travails are so over the top that they border on the camp.  Second, her songs are so popular that it’s a challenge to make them your own.  A search for “I Dreamed A Dream” on iTunes yields hundreds upon hundreds of recordings, not just Susan Boyle, Randy Graff , now Anne Hathaway, and the cast of Glee, but Aretha Franklin, Patti LuPone, Neil Diamond, Mandy Patinkin.

The most gratifying performances are by three actors who first wowed Broadway audiences in parts that seemed tailor-made for them – but in Les Miz, they prove that they have the gift of versatility. Will Swenson, who is best known for his previous roles of Broadway as Berger in “Hair” and Tick/Mitzi in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” here effects a completely credible transformation into the stern, obsessive (and full-throated) Javert.

Nikki M. James, who won a Tony for her Nabulung in The Book of Mormon, here portrays  Eponine, the character who is little more in the musical than the losing side in the triangle that includes Marius  (Andy Mientus, best-known for Smash, making his Broadway debut) and Cosette (Samantha Hill, who made her Broadway debut as Christine in Phantom).  James’s rendition of “On My Own” is a highlight of the show, yes a power ballad like all the others, but James makes it affecting.

Keala Settle, who had a show-stopping gospel number in “Hands on a Hardbody,” shows off her comic chops as well as her big voice as Madame Thenadier.

Two stand-outs are making their Broadway debuts. Kyle Scatliffe makes for an intense and persuasive Enjolras, even if I do wish he had thrust his rifle defiantly in the air just a tad less frequently.  But the heart of the show is Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean. Karimloo is an Iranian-born Canadian actor who is a ten-year veteran of the West End (and a frequent performer in Les Miz.) It’s nearly a shock that he hasn’t been on Broadway before. He is a powerful tenor; his huge, high-pitched, pure-voiced “Bring Him Home” brings down the house. There is something that feels especially unposed about him, at least partially fulfilling producer Cameron Mackintosh’s promise of greater “gritty energy.”

I’m relieved I largely liked this “Les Miserables,” and hope it’s not because the relentless repetition of the music has worked its way past my cerebral cortex and drilled itself into my brain stem.  Some 65 million people in 42 countries reportedly have seen a stage production of Les Miserables.  Even the recent movie version of the musical, which received a mostly tepid critical response, grossed $450 million. It’s nice to be able to join the masses, even if I am not ready to wave the banner, or buy a $40 Les Miz t-shirt.

Les Misérables

At the Imperial Theater

Music by Claude-Michel 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; based on the novel by Victor Hugo; directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell; original orchestrations by John Cameron, new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker; lighting by Paule Constable; costumes by Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland; set and image design by Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo; musical supervisor, Mr. Brooker

Cast: Joshua Colley or Gaten Matarazzo (Gavroche), Emily Cramer (Old Woman), Natalie Charle Ellis (Wigmaker), Jason Forbach (Feuilly), Nathaniel Hackmann (Constable/Foreman/Courfeyrac), Samantha Hill (Cosette), Nikki M. James (Éponine), Ramin Karimloo (Jean Valjean), Andrew Kober (Innkeeper/Babet), Caissie Levy (Fantine), Chris McCarrell (Laborer/Fauchelevent/Joly), Andy Mientus (Marius), Dennis Moench (Farmer/Claquesous), Adam Monley (Bishop of Digne/Combeferre), Betsy Morgan (Factory Girl), Angeli Negron or McKayla Twiggs (Little Cosette/Young Éponine), Max Quinlan (Jean Prouvaire), John Rapson (Bamatabois/Grantaire/Major Domo), Terance Cedric Reddick (Lesgles), Arbender J. Robinson (Constable/Montparnasse), Cliff Saunders (Thénardier), Kyle Scatliffe (Enjolras), Keala Settle (Madame Thénardier), Will Swenson (Javert), Christianne Tisdale (Innkeeper’s Wife), and Aaron Walpole (Champmathieu/Brujon/Loud Hailer).

 Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes, including one intermission

About New York Theater
Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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