Saturday, April 12, 2014

One Song More

Review: Les Miserables

You might think that it's makeup that makes Ramin Karimloo look older by the end of Les Miserables, but the show is just that long.

Full disclosure: the first Broadway show I ever saw was the original production of Les Miserables, towards the tail end of its run.  I came into the Imperial Theatre knowing every word of the two-disc cast recording, and the ensuing three hours was pure magic.  I don't know if this makes me more or less qualified to pass judgement on the recently opened and reimagined production; I'm obviously fond of the material, but I also have powerful memories of the original staging.  Being as objective as possible, it is my sad duty to report that while aspects of this revival truly sing, it ultimately doesn't justify remounting this classic show so soon after it's last Broadway appearance.

Adapted from Victor Hugo's sprawling French novel, Les Miserables is at its core the story of convicted thief Jean Valjean and his efforts to find redemption after being shown compassion by an elderly Bishop.  Valjean changes his name, and through a rather circuitous set of circumstances agrees to care for the young daughter of a dying factory worker named Fantine.  Valjean moves with his new charge to Paris and raises her while avoiding the suspicions of the rigid Inspector Javert, who doesn't believe in redemption and still holds Valjean accountable for breaking his parole two decades later.  If this all sounds a bit convoluted, that's what happens when one tries to condense a thousand page novel into a three hour contemporary opera.

Laurence Connor and James Powell's updated staging (which ditches the original's famous turntable in favor of more traditional scenic design) highlights the weakness in the show's plotting.  All the essential details are in Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's score, but they are easy to miss if the director (or directors, in this case) aren't actively highlighting them.  This staging is narratively muddy and seems to deemphasize the story's emotional throughline, which makes all of the death and suffering drag on into eternity.  This production doesn't actually run longer than the original's three hour runtime, but it does drag in a way the old show didn't.  Without the emotional investment in the quickly sketched characters, the show's plot contrivances and leaps in logic stick out like sore thumbs.  Does anyone without a history degree understand who General Lamarc was, or why his death prompted a bunch of students to stage a revolution that eventually got them all killed?  And how does a policeman the entire city fears manage to go undercover by changing his coat (only to be called out by a prepubescent boy)?

On the positive side, Boublil and Schonberg's score is as lovely as ever, and although the nostop parade of power ballads becomes tiresome by evening's end, there's no denying that those ballads sure do sound pretty.  The show is also one of the more intelligent examples of repeated motifs and melodic reprises to come out of the British Invasion of the 80s, and thanks to new orchestrations the show is free of the overly synthesized sound that defines so much of the music from that era.

The one unequivocally great thing about this revival is Ramin Karimloo's superbly sung and acted Jean Valjean.  Already an established star in London's West End, Karimloo is a force of nature as the wronged but deeply noble Valjean.  There is an animalistic intensity to his performance that immediately grabs you, and watching Karimloo temper that fury as his character ages and matures is electrifying.  Karimloo is blessed with a spine-tinglingly good tenor that sounds fantastic on his many big numbers, and he attacks the part with a ferocity and conviction that he grounds all of the melodramatic spectacle through the sheer force of his sincerity.  Seeing Karimloo perform Valjean's iconic second act ballad "Bring Him Home," a prayer that God spare the life of his daughter's newfound love, is a masterclass in vocal technique and musical storytelling.  For those glorious three minutes, everything else melts away and this Les Miserables becomes the emotionally stirring story it so desperately wants to be.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss.  Will Swenson acquits himself much better than expected as the ruthless Inspector Javert, sharing a particularly strong chemistry with Karimloo.  Their scenes pop with a deliciously menacing energy; their "Confrontation" feels genuinely dangerous, as if one or both men could snap at any moment (it is also one of the more convincing instances of combat in a show where the onstage violence often looks laughably fake).  Unfortunately, Swenson is singing outside of his comfort zone, which robs his two big solos of the vocal heft they deserve.  Meanwhile, Andy Mientus makes for a bland Marius, and Kyle Scatliffe's student revolutionary Enjolras is all bark and no bite.

Among the women, Cassie Levy comes across the best as the doomed Fantine, although her well-sung version of "I Dreamed a Dream" isn't the emotional sucker punch the show needs it to be.  Tony-winner Nikki M. James appears lost in the role of lovelorn street urchin Eponine, wandering the stage uncertainly during her Act II power ballad "On My Own."  The youthful innocence and genuine longing she demonstrated in The Book of Mormon is curiously absent here, making her supposed unrequited love for Marius feel forced and the pair's final duet unearned.  And while the pretty ingĂ©nue Cosette is a woefully underwritten joke of a role, surely there exists an actress who can do more with it than the underwhelming Samantha Hill.

The show's only (and desperately needed) comic relief is provided by Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as Mr. and Mrs. Thenardier, the shifty innkeepers who have been caring for Cosette before Valjean comes to take her away.  While Thenardier's songs provide a welcomed injection of levity into the night's proceedings, Saunders mugs so shamelessly that he ends up being just as tiresome as all of the gloom and doom.  Meanwhile, Settle proves that her Tony-nominated performance in Hands on a Hardbody was not a fluke, turning her brief stagetime into some of the most memorable minutes of this overblown revival.  Settle milks the role of Madame Thenardier for all it's worth, and one can only hope this talented actress' next vehicle offers her more of a chance to showcase her talents.

Visually, the show wavers between being a beautiful mess and just a mess, often within the same scene.  Some of Matt Kinley's scenic design is stunning - his multi-tiered vision of the Paris streets is particularly impressive - while some of it clearly suffers from the lack of the original's turntable (several portions of the barricade sequence aren't nearly as effective without being able to rotate the thing around to see what's on the other side).  Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland's costumes appear cheap, even on the characters who aren't dressed in tattered rags, and Paule Constable's lighting design is far too dark for much of the show's runtime.  There are times when the grandeur of the original production is sorely missed, especially since the lack of bells and whistles tends to expose the weaknesses in the storytelling.

Ultimately, this Les Miserables does little to disguise the fact that it is a cash grab meant to capitalize on renewed interest generated by the Oscar-winning film version.  The songs are as gorgeous as ever and generally well sung, if not always well acted, and Ramin Karimloo's portrayal of Jean Valjean *almost* justifies the price of admission.  If Mr. Karimloo's costars were all at his level, this production would be one of the highlights of the season, but instead it is an inoffensive diversion that slightly outstays its welcome thanks to a mammoth runtime.  Hopefully the producers of the next Broadway production will wait until there's a truly compelling, new take on the material before promising the audience "one day more."

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