Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Les Misérables -- Again!

I wondered as I sat in the Imperial Theatre before the start of the latest revival of Les Misérables if anyone in that packed house was actually seeing the show for the first time. It would seem hard to believe, what with all the productions staged around the world, not to mention the original 16-year-run on Broadway, which I saw at least four times, the 2006 revival, which I saw once, and the movie, which I also saw once. The original London production is still running after 29 years.

Perhaps a child or two who wasn’t old enough to have seen it the last time around was present, but judging by the reaction of the audience, I’d say we all knew this show well. Before even the first note of the orchestra, just the dimming of the house lights set off loud cheers and applause. So, I wondered, would it live up to all this expectation?

I thought so at first. At intermission, I turned to my friend Mary and said, “I’m enjoying it all over again.” It’s definitely the kind of story I go for — a man’s life redeemed by grace and lived out faithfully doing good and trying to follow God’s will. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, with book and original French lyrics by Alain Boublil and adaptations by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, it is the sweeping tale of Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo, in photo), who has just been released after being imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece. He jumps parole and spends the rest of his life trying to evade the by-the-law Inspector Javert (Will Swenson). Managing to create a new and prosperous life for himself in 1800s France, his life is further redeemed by raising Cosette, the orphaned daughter of a prostitute who had once worked in a factory he owned.

I love the music, by Claude-Michel Schönberg with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and had been singing the songs in my head as I walked to the theatre. I have one of the cast recordings and have played it many times throughout the years. So, like the rest of the audience, I was ready to enjoy Les Miz all over again.

But the second act dragged for me, even though it’s shorter than the original. I missed the drama of the turntable that swept the story along in the previous productions. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have opted for a traditional staging, with sets by Matt Kinley. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. 

The cast is strong, though one major character seems decidedly miscast. (More about her later.) I liked Karimloo’s Valjean, with one exception, and it was a big one. His interpretation of “Bring Him Home,” one of the many stand-out songs in the show, was completely out of keeping with his character. This song is a prayer by a humble man who repeatedly turns to God for guidance. “God on high, hear by prayer, in my need, you have always been there.” Karimloo skipped the humble part, sounding more as if he were bargaining with and finally challenging God. And with his excessive hand gestures, he seemed as if he were doing a nightclub act. I have heard this song sung many times live and on numerous recordings, but never have I heard an interpretation anything like his. I did not like it.

Luckily I bought into the rest of his Valjean, and the death scene is as moving as always. Swenson’s Javert is delightfully self-righteous and unrelenting. Caisse Levy is a passionate Fantine, Cosette’s mother who was forced to turn to prostitution to support her child who lives in the care of an innkeeper and his wife, those delightfully unscrupulous Thenardiers (Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle) who add the comic relief to this tale of love and misery set among a deadly student-led revolt against the aristocracy. Samantha Hill is a feistier adult Cosette than I remember and I liked that, and Andy Mientus as Marius, an aristocratic school boy turned revolutionary who is Cosette’s love interest, captures the role with ease.

The one main player who misses the mark by a mile or more is Nikki M. James as Eponine, a young woman suffering the heartache of her unrequited love for Marius. At least that’s how the character is should be portrayed. I kept feeling James was supposed to be in another play nearby but had somehow wandered onto the stage at the Imperial and was startled to find herself in 19th century France. She appeared clueless as to her involvement in the show. And in her big number, “On My Own,” when she should be pouring out her pain over the fact that she will never have Marius, she sounds more petulant than heartbroken. I kept expecting her to stomp her foot like a child. This song is meant to connect her to the audience by creating sympathy, but I felt no emotional draw toward her. I just wished she would wander back out and find the show where she belonged. Her death scene was redundant. She was already dead.

I’m curious to see how long this latest revival will last. Is there an endless market of people who want to see Les Miz again and again? I was happy to see it, but if I weren’t a critic with free tickets, I’m sure I’d spend my money to see something new. Or at least a revival I haven’t seen within the last decade. Time will tell.

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