My biggest concern going into the recently launched Broadway revival/restaging of “Les Miserables” wasn’t whether the actors would be up to snuff or if the rethought design would hold up to memories of the turntable-fueled original.
No, my biggest concern was whether I would hear the people sing.
I’m not talking about the student revolutionaries on stage at the barricades. I’m talking about the theatergoers around me.
After rounds of national tours (I’ve lost count of how many made it to Indy), a pair of oft-rerun PBS concert specials, the release of the mixed-bag movie version, and a parade of regional, student, and amateur productions, “Les Miserables” is about as familiar to audiences as anything written for the stage in the past few decades. It’s telling that the program designers no longer feel the need to offer paragraphs explaining the action. Yet how much shushing would I have to do when it came time for “On My Own” or “I Dreamed a Dream”?
Surprise. While each number received a thunderous ovation (with the cheers for Javert’s “Stars” coming in second to Valjean’s “Bring Him Home”), the audience remained relatively silent during the songs themselves. Except for the rigorous clapping, the audience seemed caught up less in a drama than in a religious ritual, with the stations of this particular cross including The Gifting of the Candlesticks, The Tearing of the Papers, the Carrying of Marius, et al. What was once an ambitious literary adaptation has become, in a sense, a Passion Play.
And why not? “Les Miserables” is steeped in religion anyway—the story of a man whose redemption comes not through societal punishment but from an act of extreme kindness from a clergyman. The musical is overt in its turn-the-other-cheekness and unapologetic about showcasing a rewarding god and a join-with-your-loved-ones afterlife. This production accentuates that, with characters seeming to sing directly to god as often as they sing to each other.
In that religious spirit, I’ll make a confession and come clean. When I first saw the original Broadway production (with its second Jean Valjean), I was a bit underwhelmed. Yes, it was lightyears better than its rival British blockbuster “Phantom of the Opera” (yawn)—but, from the cheap seats, “Les Miserables” came on strong in its first 40 minutes or so but, from the moment we met the comic-relief Thenardiers, the show felt sluggish, never sustaining the intensity that riveted me early on.
Familiarity through subsequent viewings and listenings, though, increased my appreciation for “Les Miserables”. By the time it reached movie screens in 2012 (don’t get me started on Russell Crowe’s energy sapping performance as Javert), I was well versed in its verses and the most recent time I saw it on stage, narrowed into the confines of Beef & Boards’ Dinner Theatre, the show worked wonders (see my review here).
My conversation to “Les Miserables” fan—does not come with blind acceptance. I’m still no fan of the Thenardiers, who only have seemed a true part of the plays fabric in the aforementioned Beef & Boards productions when they weren’t play as overt cartoons. It’s no better now on Broadway, with every alleged joke underlined and the forward motion of the piece grinding to a halt whenever they appear. And does Madame T really need to show up at the second act wedding in an outfit more appropriate for “Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert”? Short answer: Nope. But she does, to the detriment of the scene.
And while the scenic design, including more set piece than the original supplemented with judiciously used video projects and atmospheric artwork by Victor Hugo himself, works well, the solo numbers often have the air of “now-it’s-my-turn” rather than being integrated into the whole. You are unlikely to hear a stronger version of “Bring Him Home,” for instance, but an air of self-congratulation from the otherwise strong Ramin Karimloo as Valjean makes the showstopper more admirable than emotionally impactful. I’d have preferred a more human touch from Fantine (Caissie Levy, so strong in her early scenes) in her end-of-the-show reappearance rather than as a character-free spirit. And the orchestra, cut back from the original, was mixed nicely with vocals but felt at a distance.
Big plusses in this production are a richness given to some of the potentially one-note character. Will Swenson as Javert not only has the vocal chops but gives a desperation to the inspector’s quest that seems built from his statement that he was “born inside a jail.” Does his pursuit of Valjean come from a desire to squelch that part of his own childhood? It’s difficult not to wonder when he eyes the fallen urchin Gavroche (Joshua Colley).
Speaking of Gavroche, the character smartly has been directed into a more central part in the barricade scenes. I don’t recall another production focusing so strongly on his reaction to the fallen Eponine. In that moment, the true age of this tough, street smart kid suddenly shown through, powerfully and truthfully.
Freshness, too, is displayed in the (admittedly, lightning-fast) blossoming romance between Cosette (Samantha Hill) and Marias (Andy Mientus). The more realistic-than-usual set and direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell helps turn “A Heart Full of Love” from a placeholder into a delightfully sweet, comic piece, which pays off nicely when, later, we are expected to care about the fate of these two.
For all its pleasures, the original production of “Les Miserables” was an intimidating creation, one that felt carved in stone. This youthful one makes an effective case for the durability of “Les Miserables.” When tomorrow comes…and next year….and the year after that…I expect this production—or a yet-to-be-imaged other—of “Les Miserables” to still be a part of the Broadway landscape.
And while I was happy not to hear my fellow audience members singing along, I’m sure I wasn’t the only one belting on the way home from the theater. And I didn’t care who could hear me sing.