Les Miserables: Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Ramin Karimloo in "Les Miserables"
Can you hear the people sing? If not, you must have been living under a rock.

The 1980s blockbuster returns to Broadway in a cinematically propulsive staging that stars Ramin Karimloo as prisoner 24601, Jean Valjean, and Will Swenson as his adversary, Javert.

NEW YORK – The turntable that was the defining design element of the original Les Miserables is gone. Yet this first revival to hit Broadway since Tom Hooper's bludgeoning screen version extended the brand often seems like a record being played at high speed. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's all-singing mega-musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic 19th century novel hurtles along in a breathless marathon for almost three hours. Despite that running time, this reboot feels faster, grittier, gloomier and, above all, more emphatic than ever, which is saying something for a show that was always an unrelenting assault on the tear ducts.

Still, the large number of young faces in the audience and their roaring approval throughout the performance suggests this is Les Miz for excitable teens and twentysomethings. Nothing sets youthful hearts racing, it seems, like a vigorous jolt of love, death and revolutionary spirit. Robust sales throughout previews and a rumored advance of $9 million already indicate far better box office fortunes than the premature 2006 revival, which opened just three years after the original Broadway production wrapped its 15-year run.

The next-gen appeal of a musical already seen by 65 million people around the globe is attributable to a number of factors. Chief among them of course is Universal's 2012 movie, which grossed $442 million worldwide. But there’s also Susan Boyle's re-popularization of "I Dreamed a Dream," the ill-fated Fantine's signature song; the countless anthems from the show performed by contestants on American Idol, The Voice and in high school concerts; the widely televised all-star 25th anniversary concert; and the incursions into tortured Les Miz balladry by characters on Glee. While the bristling fervor and overwrought '80s earnestness that these songs demand nudge the musical toward self-parody, somewhere along the line it's become enshrined as a popular classic.

The good news in this propulsive touring production -- co-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell and recast for Broadway -- is that the male leads are superb. Trading theatrical bombast for emotional rawness, they breathe urgent dramatic life into the core arc of persecution and obsession that drives the story.

Ramin Karimloo has been celebrated for his musical theater performances in London, but his Broadway debut has been a long time coming and he doesn't disappoint. His Jean Valjean has the brawn and the brooding demeanor of a man who has endured two decades of incarcerated hard labor on minor charges. But he also brings the requisite spiritual elevation of the transformed Valjean, without forcing the victimized character's saintliness. His voice is a powerful instrument but also achingly sweet in "Bring Him Home," his affecting second-act prayer to save the life of the young Marius (Andy Mientus). That song yields the production’s most ecstatic applause.

Matching Karimloo in authority is Will Swenson's glowering Javert, the police inspector who makes it his life's mission to hunt down the fugitive Valjean. Russell Crowe's torpid performance in this role -- and his seeming embarrassment to find himself singing -- was arguably the low point of the movie. But Swenson makes the corrosive conflicts of the man come alive, notably in his two big solos, "Stars" and "Soliloquy." If his slow-mo (spoiler alert!) suicide leap is a tad cheesy, it doesn't lessen the performance's steely intensity.

The girls, however, are a mixed bag. Both Caissie Levy's Fantine and Nikki M. James' Eponine have poppy voices that get screechy as their songs build, softening the impact of those poor wretches' tragedies. A better fit vocally is Samantha Hill as Cosette, her crystalline soprano lending purity to the discovery of love that signals the end of her childhood. As her equally dewy sweetheart, Mientus (Smash) delivers vanilla nobility for most of his stage time, but then surprises with a stirring, deeply felt elegy for his fallen comrades, "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Performed as those ghosts surround him holding candles lit by the women left behind, the song is all the more effective for the simplicity of its staging.

Subtlety was always a stranger to Les Miserables, but the heavy-handed bawdiness of the amoral innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle) takes them way over the top into vulgar pantomime. Rather than opportunistic mascots of the dog-eat-dog underclass, they become monstrous gargoyles out of a sleazy cartoon.

The revolving set of Trevor Nunn and John Caird's original production is so integral a part of Les Miz that it was hard to imagine a staging without it. But Connor and Powell's streamlined version has both cinematic fluidity and clarity, without sacrificing any of the dynamism of its predecessor. Matt Kinley's set pieces are enhanced by projected images inspired by Hugo's own paintings of early-1800s France. Paule Constable's sepulchral lighting shrouds the action in grimy tones, with the performers isolated in murky spotlights. The smoke machine naturally gets a workout, nowhere more so than when Valjean drags the half-dead Marius through the Paris sewers, and the fog threatens to asphyxiate the conductor. Everything is amped up, including the sound; the whistling gunfire during the 1832 insurrection might have been lifted from a videogame.

Sure, there's no disguising the Cliffs Notes feel of the adaptation. The storytelling is so compacted that plot points whiz by like blurred subway stops on an express train, making this less a narrative than a machine. Did anyone without a background in French history ever figure out what the uprising of students and workers was actually about, based strictly on Les Miz? And what did Fantine die of anyway? A bad haircut?

But the inbuilt emotional sensations of the show are what matter. Judging by the vocal crowd response when favorite characters appear (even the plucky urchin Gavroche gets screaming entrance applause), or when the first bars of one of the endlessly refrained key musical motifs are heard, the story is no longer the point. This critic-proof production will likely speak loudest to young audiences coming to it onstage relatively fresh -- not those of us who have been anesthetized by 30 years of over-exposure. And maybe that's just as it should be.

Venue: Imperial Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Ramin Karimloo, Will Swenson, Caissie Levy, Nikki M. James, Andy Mientus, Samantha Hill, Keala Settle, Cliff Saunders, Kyle Scatliffe, Dennis Moench, Chris McCarrell, Christianne Tisdale, Andrew Kober, Adam Monley, John Brink, Arbender J. Robinson, Betsy Morgan, Emily Cramer, Natalie Charle Ellis, John Rapson, Aaron Walpole, Angeli Negron, Mckayla Twiggs, Gaten Matarazzo, Jason Forbach, Terance Cedric Reddick, Max Quinlan, Julie Benko, Erin Clemons, Mia Sinclair Jenness, Melissa Mitchell, Melissa O’Neil

Directors: Laurence Connor, James Powell

Music: Claude-Michel Schonberg

Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer

Original French text: Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, based on the novel by Victor Hugo

Additional material: James Fenton

Adaptation: Trevor Nunn, John Caird

Set and image designer: Matt Kinley

Lighting designer: Paule Constable

Costume designers: Andreane Neofitou, Christine Rowland

Sound designer: Mick Potter

Orchestrations: John Cameron, Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe, Stephen Brooker

Music supervisor: Stephen Brooker

Musical director: James Lowe

Musical staging: Michael Ashcroft, Geoffrey Garratt

Executive producers: Nicholas Allott, Seth Sklar-Heyn

Presented by Cameron Mackintosh