Review: Broadway's new revival of 'Les Miserables'

March 28, 2014
Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

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.

ADVERTISEMENT
  • Les Miserables is cool to watch all time
    Les Miserables is cool to watch all time and so its among top position of what are the longest running broadway shows.
  • Thanks, Lou.
    Thanks, Lou. I had the same reactions as you in the beginning. When I first saw "Les Mirables" at IU, the first Broadway tour, I was underwhelmed. And co8ldm't understand the words. But the TV concert version converted me. I wish I had seen the Beef & Boards show. They sometimes do marvelous things. A number of years back they had a "Cabaret" production that, to me, was more effective than the original. Sometimes the best things come in small packages.

Post a comment to this blog

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in IBJ editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
  1. I never thought I'd see the day when a Republican Mayor would lead the charge in attempting to raise every tax we have to pay. Now it's income taxes and property taxes that Ballard wants to increase. And to pay for a pre-K program? Many studies have shown that pre-K offer no long-term educational benefits whatsoever. And Ballard is pitching it as a way of fighting crime? Who is he kidding? It's about government provided day care. It's a shame that we elected a Republican who has turned out to be a huge big spending, big taxing, big borrowing liberal Democrat.

  2. Why do we blame the unions? They did not create the 11 different school districts that are the root of the problem.

  3. I was just watching an AOW race from cleveland in 1997...in addition to the 65K for the race, there were more people in boats watching that race from the lake than were IndyCar fans watching the 2014 IndyCar season finale in the Fontana grandstands. Just sayin...That's some resurgence modern IndyCar has going. Almost profitable, nobody in the grandstands and TV ratings dropping 61% at some tracks in the series. Business model..."CRAZY" as said by a NASCAR track general manager. Yup, this thing is purring like a cat! Sponsors...send them your cash, pronto!!! LOL, not a chance.

  4. I'm sure Indiana is paradise for the wealthy and affluent, but what about the rest of us? Over the last 40 years, conservatives and the business elite have run this country (and state)into the ground. The pendulum will swing back as more moderate voters get tired of Reaganomics and regressive social policies. Add to that the wave of minority voters coming up in the next 10 to 15 years and things will get better. unfortunately we have to suffer through 10 more years of gerrymandered districts and dispropionate representation.

  5. Funny thing....rich people telling poor people how bad the other rich people are wanting to cut benefits/school etc and that they should vote for those rich people that just did it. Just saying..............

ADVERTISEMENT