Broadway Blog editor Matthew Wexler revisits a modern classic, Les Misérables.
“At the end of the day you’re another day older.”
So goes the lyric in one of musical theater’s most epic adventures, Les Misérables, which returns to Broadway this spring in a triumphant new staging co-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell with additional musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt. If that seems like a lot of hands on deck, well… it is, but apparently it takes an army to bring to life Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel that follows the journey of Jean Valjean as he matures from enraged convict to soft-hearted senior—all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.
Les Miz fanatics will be thrilled with the new production, which retains the sweeping melodies of the original but replaces the synthetic 1980s orchestrations with a more natural sound, though the hard-working 20-piece orchestra could use more strings to fully realize its intent. Long gone is the set’s famous turntable and encroaching barricade, instead replaced by a conventional set with pieces flying and rolling in as needed. Set and image designer Matt Kinley incorporates creative projections that add depth and dimension, though occasionally feel more Xbox than 19th century.
But what catapults this latest incarnation to a new level are the emotionally raw, visceral performances of its leading men: Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean and Will Swenson as Javert. Their cat and mouse chase throughout the years is wrought with tension and urgency. Karimloo, an Iranian-born Canadian actor, sports a soaring tenor voice (not to mention a full sleeve tattoo) that captures the nuances, vulnerability and rage of Valjean’s journey. Unlike the original production, the staging allows Karimloo freedom to move and breathe unique life into the character. We see Valjean’s uncontrollable temper slowly melt as he undertakes the responsibility of caring for young Cosette, the orphaned daughter of Eponine, a woman who worked in Valjean’s factory who succumbed to the hardships of the era. Karimloo’s dynamic performance—sometimes frenetic and wiry and at other times distilled into quiet melancholy, anchors the story while simultaneously propelling it forward.
As his longtime nemesis Javert, Will Swenson is a worthy counterpart. Hunting Valjean throughout the years, their encounters grow with increasing tension as Javert descends into despair while Valjean’s sense of peace and purpose only increases. Swenson’s bari-tenor voice sounds stifled at times by the role’s limited vocal range, but like Karimloo, delivers an emotionally charged performance.
Surprisingly, the women of this Les Miz are less successful. Caissie Levy as Fantine, while possessing a powerful voice that could storm a barricade, lacks the emotional vulnerability needed to portray a woman forced to sacrifice her morals and eventually her life to save her child. Nikki M. James (Tony Award-winner for Book of Mormon) also hits her marks but lacks any sort of chemistry with love interest Marius (charmingly portrayed by Andy Mientus). As adult Cosette, Samantha Hill fares far better, capturing the style of the era as well as possessing a clear, soprano voice.
The spirited ensemble—an ever-changing cast of street urchins, revolutionaries and the like—fill the Imperial Theatre with some of the best voices on Broadway right now, though they are quite young and leave one to wonder what the age expectancy was circa 1832.
At its core, Les Misérables, is a story of compassion and forgiveness. As Valjean sings on his deathbed, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It is a testament that people—if willing—can change. Whether you’re a Les Miz fanatic or one of the handful that has yet to see this epic tale, this production beautifully retells what has become a classic of the modern musical theater.
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