The barricades still hold.
It's been around for some two decades now, but "Les Miserables," the sprawling musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's epic novel about good and evil, revolution and romance, retains its power to entertain and move an audience.
What stands out most forcefully in this revival, which opened Thursday at the Broadhurst Theatre, is its clarity of story and song. The show, which only ended its original Broadway run in 2003, has returned with a sterling cast and new orchestrations (by Christopher Jahnke) that allow the lyrics of the sung-through musical to be heard pretty much in their entirety.
Don't expect a radical reinterpretation of the show, though. Most of its original collaborators, including co-director John Caird and the first design team, are back. Yet the Broadhurst is a smaller theater than the Broadway and the Imperial, the two houses where "Les Miserables" played during its initial New York run.
So there is an unexpected feeling of intimacy to the sweeping story of Jean Valjean. He is the moral center of Hugo's historical tale, which is set in early 19th-century France. "Intimate" may be not the first word to come to mind when you think of "Les Miserables," yet there is a closeness to the people on stage in this production that makes the rapid-fire unfolding of events all the more vivid.
That closeness puts an additional pressure on the cast, but these folks handle the proximity to the audience with considerable skill. Alexander Gemignani is a credible, heartfelt Jean Valjean, unjustly imprisoned and a man on the run for much of life. If he has to work hard to hit those high notes in his big number, "Bring Him Home," Gemignani nevertheless is secure in what is one of the most demanding roles in musical theater.
As Inspector Javert, Valjean's persistent nemesis, Norm Lewis is exceptional - icy in his portrayal of the villain's determination and yet careful not to turn the man into a snarling caricature.
The supporting cast has been chosen with care. The most startling, some might say problematic, is Daphne Rubin-Vega, who delivers a breathy, very modern interpretation of Fantine. She's the dying prostitute whose daughter, Cosette, is raised by Valjean. Rubin-Vega's voice has a raspy, tremulous quality that, coupled with her fine acting, effectively conveys the woman's doom.
Even better is Celia Keenan-Bolger, a touching, vulnerable Eponine, the "other woman" In the love triangle that involves Cosette (Ali Ewoldt) and that fervent student Marius (Adam Jacobs). To their credit, Ewoldt and Jacobs are able to inject personality into these impassioned lovers, the most formulaic roles in the musical.
Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway know where the laughs are as the avaricious Thenardiers, those parasites who feed off the misfortunes of others. Beach, in particular, is disturbingly creepy, also conveying the nastiness of a man who, in lesser hands, would just be comic relief.
And, yes, the show's famous swirling turntable still seems to be in perpetual motion. Set designer John Napier uses it to quickly move the action from prison to factory to bordello to the barricades and sewers of Paris.
One of the reasons for the overwhelming popularity of "Les Miserables" is that the majesty of Hugo's story, adapted here by Alain Boubill and Claude-Michel Schonberg, is matched by the majesty of their score. Its melodies are as grandiose as the story, stirring, tuneful and totally capturing the emotion of the moment.
That emotion is most obvious in the show's large choral numbers, those led by the young revolutionary Enjolras, portrayed here by a vocal powerhouse named Aaron Lazar. There may not be a more thrilling number than the show's flag-waving, first act finale, "One Day More." The whole company - not only those students but Valjean and other principals - come together physically and melodically to recapitulate the hope that infuses Hugo's gargantuan tale.
It's easy to see why people who crave spectacle in a musical fall so hard, so fast and so fully for "Les Miserables."
There's nothing small about this sweeping production, which weaves together numerous characters and plots from Victor Hugo's sprawling novel set in the early decades of 19th-century France.
That is never more true than during Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg's extraordinary number "One Day More," which ends Act I with virtually the entire cast onstage. And it's a huge cast.
As staged by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, the scene overflows with voices and emotions of the characters we've met. That includes the bedeviled fugitive Jean Valjean (Alexander Gemignani) and Javert (Norm Lewis), the police inspector obsessed with bringing him to justice.
This scene amazed when "Les Miz" debuted on Broadway in 1987, and continued to do so through the show's 16-year run. Now it is the high point in Cameron Mackintosh's new production, which opened last night for a six-month run. It's not perfect, but it vividly shows off the musical's melodic riches.
A couple of key roles in the eclectic cast do disappoint. Gemignani lacks authority in his opening numbers, but he later rises to his role's rigorous vocal challenges, especially in "Bring Him Home." As Fantine, the doomed woman forced into prostitution to support her daughter, Daphne Rubin-Vega projects an odd Betty Boop vocal quality, while Celia Keenan-Bolger pushes a bit too hard as Eponine.
On the plus side, Lewis brings implacability and a burnished baritone to the dogged Javert. Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway stand out as the comic and conniving innkeepers, and Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs bring passion to the lovers Marius and Cosette. Aaron Lazar is ideally suited in both voice and physicality for the role of the rebel Enjolras.
"Les Miz" was never a show I felt compelled to revisit. Seeing it again, I'm reminded of its luxurious design. I lost count of the gorgeous pictures created onstage during its nearly three-hour running time. Even with a few cast flaws, this production is unquestionably a powerful night of theater. The only question now is whether audiences will let it leave after only six months.
Imagine, for one drowsy second, that you are a child who has asked Daddy to recite a favorite bedtime story: the one about the kindly escaped convict who is chased around France by an evil policeman.
It’s still a good story, but Daddy has delivered it so many times before — night after night after night — that his heart just isn’t in it. In fact he seems kind of bored by even the most exciting parts. Lulled instead of stimulated by the familiar tale, you find yourself slipping into dreamland sooner than you ever planned.
Such is the impact of the premature revival of “Les Misérables,” the long-running Broadway musical that opened in 1987, closed in 2003 and reopened last night at the Broadhurst Theater for a six-month engagement. Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s adaptation of Victor Hugo’s two-ton tome of a novel, set amid revolutionary ferment in early 19th-century France, still sounds as pretty as can be, but more in the manner of an extended pop nocturne than a rousing “Marseillaise.”
Freshly reorchestrated and (for the most part) appealingly sung, this undercast “Misérables,” a slightly scaled-down version of the well-groomed behemoth that arrived in New York nearly two decades ago, appears to be functioning in a state of mild sedation. It isn’t sloppy or blurry. But its pulse rate stays well below normal, and so most likely will yours.
Like the current production of another exemplar of late-20th-century theatrical staying power, “A Chorus Line,” the new “Les Misérables” belongs to a trend that might be described as revival by Xerox. In many ways it is a facsimile of its prototype. But the colors look less sharp and the humanizing textures of the original are almost entirely absent. What you have isn’t the real thing, but a hyper-enlarged scrapbook memento.
Staying this close to the original staging of John Caird and Trevor Nunn (who are again credited as directors, along with Shaun Kerrison as associate director), this revival offers definite evidence of why “Les Misérables,” which continues to thrive in the West End in London, is the best of the mega-musicals of its era. (That includes the only two shows that have topped its endurance record on Broadway, both also British imports and both scored by Andrew Lloyd Webber: the now departed “Cats” and the still living “Phantom of the Opera.”)
In bringing a work to the English-speaking stage that began as a French pop-opera album, Mr. Caird and Mr. Nunn brought to bear the masterly skills of narrative compression, clarity and momentum they had demonstrated so memorably in their previous collaboration for the Royal Shakespeare Company, “Nicholas Nickleby,” from the Dickens novel.
Making ingenious use of a vast revolving turntable at center stage (the inspired set is by John Napier), artfully arranged crowds and place-defining lighting (by David Hersey), the musical manages to keep in clear focus a broad cast of characters from different social strata whose fortunes and even identities change over the course of several decades.
Never mind that a lot of people who have seen “Les Misérables” still think that it’s about the French Revolution of 1789 instead of the student revolution of 1832. You are always aware of who loves whom, who hates whom, who’s done whom wrong, who is good and who is bad. To borrow from Oscar Wilde, that is what fiction means.
The newly resuscitated “Misérables” is still remarkably easy to follow. And it still seems to exist in a state of perpetual motion, a feeling that starts with the relentless, propulsive sweep of Mr. Schönberg’s score. But it lacks the fiery passion in performance without which the show is all build-up in search of a climax. Without bona fide barnstormers storming the barricades, the show can seem almost as quaint as a movie operetta starring Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald.
Much of the problem lies with the principal players: talented individuals all, the majority with impressive Broadway track records, and almost all uncomfortably cast. Most crucial are the two men at the plot’s center: Jean Valjean (Alexander Gemignani of “Assassins” and the recent revival of “Sweeney Todd”), the virtuous ex-felon who reinvents himself as a pillar of society, and Javert (Norm Lewis of “Side Show”), the unyielding police detective who pursues him like a whole flock of Furies.
Both actors sing handsomely, and in the case of Mr. Gemignani, with lustrous nuance and variety. But their emotional temperatures feel fixed at about 96 degrees.
Mr. Lewis’s Javert is defined chiefly by his tin-soldier stiffness. Mr. Gemignani’s Valjean comes across as a chap of unshakeable equanimity, who is never really in danger of losing his temper and doing the wrong thing. When this Javert and Valjean cross paths, they exude the tension of corporate businessmen who shared a slightly fractious round of golf a week earlier.
The breathy, little-girl voice and sultry mannerisms of Daphne Rubin-Vega (the original Mimi of “Rent”) clash with the high-impact role of Fantine, the ill-used factory-worker-turned prostitute. (This is the only performance of “Les Misérables” I’ve attended in which Fantine’s powerhouse ballad, “I Dreamed a Dream,” didn’t stop the show.)
Gary Beach, best remembered for his blissful Tony-winning turn as the cross-dressing director in “The Producers,” uses the same florid, jiggly-gelatin mannerisms to portray Thénardier, the crooked innkeeper, which makes the character simply cute instead of sinister. Jenny Galloway finds a better balance of comedy and creepiness as his vulgar wife.
Adam Jacobs is suitably cow-eyed and swoony-voiced as Marius, the handsome student in love with Val Jean's ward, Cosette (a wind-up canary of a part, played by Ali Ewoldt). Celia Keenan-Bolger ("Spelling Bee") is credible and mildly touching as the love-struck street urchin Eponine.
But the most suitably vigorous performances come from actors in relatively minor parts: Aaron Lazar, who brings a troop-rallying tenor to Enjolras, the leader of the student revolutionaries, and the endearingly avid Brian D'Addario, one of the three child actors portraying the feisty street urchin Gavroche.
A galvanizing Gavroche, alas, does not a galvanizing "Les Miz" make. Students of theater who want to study a first-class blueprint for musical staging, and diehard fans of Mr. Schonberg's music, will find this revival worth a visit. But a show that should have the sweet, burning kick of a shot of Courvoisier tastes instead like a warm glass of milk.
Location is everything, they say, so it's filling that the new Broadway production of Les Miserables should have landed, like a meteor, at the Broadhurst Theatre.
The Broadhurst is sandwiched between the Majestic - home to The Phantom of the Opera, another enduring symbol of the pomp and sap that infected musical theater in the late 20lh century - and the Shubert, where Monty Python's Spamalot derives some of its humor by sending up such exercises in excess.
There are moments in this Les Miz, as the faithful call Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's swollen adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel, when more skeptical viewers will swear they are witnessing one of Spamalot’s satirical sequences. Smoke billows and cymbals crash as the curtain rises on our hero, Jean Valjean, who averts one disaster after the next, popping up like some French Energizer Bunny in various locales. We also meet less fortunate souls, and watch as wannabe revolutionaries march and fight in slow motion and - Mon Dieul - die on revolving sets.
Herbert Kretzmer's plodding, pretentious lyrics embellish the obvious with tortured rhymes and the occasional witless joke, and Schonberg's pop-operatic score remains flagrantly derivative, even by today's lax standards. If you don't believe me, hum the first notes of On My Own, a signature number, then listen to the opening of Rodgers and Hammerstein's I Have Dreamed, from Rodgers and Hammerstein's The King And I.
None of this should, or will, deter anyone who savored Les Miserables during its first run (1987-2003), and there are fine performances in this revival. At 27, leading man Alexander Gemignani seems young to play Valjean, but he's a formidable physical and vocal presence.
Daphne Rubin-Vega's dusky voice is well suited to the wounded, doomed Fantine, and Gary Beach lends welcome comic relief as the dastardly Thenardier. The scenes in which he appears are the most buoyant.
But if a few breaths of levity can't sustain you through nearly three hours (with intermission) of melodrama, don't say I didn't warn you.
For a period generally categorized as greedy, vulgar and shallow, the 1980s sure didn't shrink from exhibitions of big blustery sentiment. Even before the competing power ballads of Celine, Mariah and Whitney started choking the airwaves at the close of the decade, "Les Miserables" had already embraced shameless emotional exorbitance. The pop opera milked tears with the indefatigability of the smoke machines that kept its stage drenched in soupy atmosphere. The show that helped repopularize musical theater as blockbuster spectacle has since been so parodied it's almost a parody of itself. And yet, undeniably, it still works, stirring audiences for 20 years and counting.
By rights, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's sung-through musical should be a dinosaur, its straight face and clenched fists rendered cheesily unfashionable in the age of irony. It sets the same melodious handful of chord progressions to shuffle mode and simplifies Victor Hugo's massive 1862 novel about love and war, mercy and redemption in post-Revolution France into an unrelenting series of emotional crescendos seasoned with fuzzy politics and philosophy.
But just try to remain unmoved when plucky urchin Eponine sings of her unrequited love in "On My Own," when unjustly persecuted fugitive Jean Valjean begs God to spare the life of his ward's young sweetheart in "Bring Him Home," as students lead the workers to insurrection in "Do You Hear the People Sing?" or when all the narrative and musical themes of the first act are rousingly woven together in the galvanic "One Day More."
This is a show of inflamed passions -- romance, revolution and personal obsession. And even if it does stint on subtlety, it's hard to resist the sweeping saga's pull when its creatives have clearly brought such passionate conviction to the telling.
Back on Broadway only 3½ years after the close of a 16-year run, it's as if "Les Miz" never went away. Cameron Mackintosh's landmark production has been rethought only in a marginal reduction from its original scale and a slight tightening (it's down to under three hours, resulting in an occasionally rushed feel).
Co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn's propulsive, turntable-driven staging; John Napier's stylized design, with its chiaroscuro sobriety violated only by the vivid color slash of a red flag; and David Hersey's spectral lighting remain largely unchanged from memory. (The formation of the barricades is still an image of grandly imagined theatricality.)
The surprise factor in this hasty revival is the top-tier cast. Without the brief absence, it's inconceivable this longtime Broadway fixture could have attracted such A talent.
Chief among them is Alexander Gemignani, making a head-spinning switch from his steely turn as the odious Beadle in "Sweeney Todd" to Christ-like prisoner 24601, Valjean. The show's clunky prologue -- Valjean is paroled after 19 years on a chain gang for lifting a loaf of bread, suffers the stigma of the ex-con as a free man, repays the charity of a bishop by robbing him and then is morally transformed by the cleric's forgiveness -- offers a lot for any actor to process. But Gemignani recovers to build a robustly defined character, providing a strong focus in the sprawling, populous plot.
He acts the role with urgency, compassion and the circumspect nature of a man constantly looking over his shoulder. And he more than meets the part's vocal demands, singing both with gravitas and aching sweetness, especially in the introspective "Who Am I?" and tender, near-falsetto prayer "Bring Him Home."
While Norm Lewis doesn't have quite so assured a handle on the complexities of Javert, Valjean's nemesis, he steadily gains momentum and authority as the driven cop and his silken voice is in fine form. Lewis' powerful delivery of "Stars" makes it a first-act showstopper.
Unlike her guileless, open-hearted Olive in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," Celia Keenan-Bolger's touching Eponine attempts to mask her bruised softness beneath a combative front. Her plaintive declaration of feeling in "On My Own" is another emotional high point.
Enlisted from the national tour, Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs bring dulcet voices and unguarded sincerity to their roles as young lovers Cosette and Marius, the meek who inherit the earth in Hugo's hopeful new dawn. In particular, Jacobs' seeming obliviousness to his boy-band good looks makes him a disarming romantic lead.
A fine Fabrizio in "The Light in the Piazza," the golden-voiced Aaron Lazar impresses as Enjolras, his Roman profile and imposing presence making him a persuasive leader of the ill-fated uprising.
As opportunistic vulgarian Thenardier and his wife, Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway are crowd-pleasing villains. Beach could bring more clarity to the amusing lyrics of "Master of the House," and he neglects to nourish the role's sinisterness, but his sharply honed vaudevillian comic skills are much in evidence.
The one casting choice likely to cause consternation among diehard "Les Miz" devotees is Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine. Her interpretation of the doomed waif as a broken child, possessed by death well before she succumbs, offers a less routine approach than many of her castmates. But Rubin-Vega's raspy vocals seem ill suited and too contemporary for her killer first-act number "I Dreamed a Dream" (especially for anyone attached to Patti LuPone's full-bodied version in the original London cast recording), underselling the show's first major assault on the tear ducts.
Of all the trans-Atlantic musical juggernauts that colonized Broadway in the 1980s, "Les Miserables" remains arguably the most entertaining. Sure, it's overwrought. But it's less lead-footed than "The Phantom of the Opera," with more hooks than "Miss Saigon" and none of the cloying poetic whimsy of "Cats."
"A Chorus Line" similarly returned to Broadway this season in a staging faithful to the original, but "Les Miz's" brief departure doesn't invite the same nostalgic welcome home. Yet the show's fans could do a lot worse than this sturdy production.
Back to the barricades, mes enfants! Cameron Mackintosh's production of "Les Miserables," which left us only in May 2003 after a mere 6,612 performances, has returned, opening last night at the Broadhurst Theatre.
This revived "Les Miz" is somewhat shorter than the 1987 version, clocking in at something under three hours, and, for the new stage, slightly smaller than the famed original.
The production started with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is still running in London after more than 20 years. It is not one of the truly great musicals, but has one of the greatest bookwriters in the business: Victor Hugo.
His sprawling 19th-century novel has been neatly trimmed back by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, furnished with smartly Englished lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, then decked out with sweeping, anthem-laden pop-opera music by Claude-Michel Schonberg.
Still, it's the story itself, so dashingly and operatically suitable for musicalization, plus its epoch-making staging, that elevated "Les Miz" onto its own strange pedestal of theatrical grandeur.
Jean Valjean, a strong man of even stronger moral fiber, steals a loaf of bread to feed his starving nephew and is imprisoned in a chain gang for his pains.
After his release, he becomes a rich, honored citizen, but is still mercilessly pursued for breaking parole by Inspector Javert, another man of steely principle.
Add to this engrossing point-counterpoint of morality a narrative fabric containing such strands as a compassionate priest, a wronged and dying whore, her bereft daughter, young love, young death, the stirring failure of a student revolt and, for comic relief, a conniving innkeeper and his wife.
The production team of John Caird and Trevor Nunn and designers the great John Napier (scenery) and Andreane Neofitou (costumes) still weave their magic, but the new cast - indeed, the whole production - suffers from a general air of exaggeration that has a road show feel to it.
Quite a few of the performances need toning down, particularly the estimable Gary Beach's innkeeper Thenardier, Celia Keenan-Bolger's heart-rent Eponine and, as W.C. Fields might assert, all of the kids.
Yet some in the cast, including Adam Jacobs' Marius and Ali Ewoldt's Cosette, just fade into the scenery, while Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine, with a screeching croak of a voice, is more appalling than appealing.
Luckily, a few of the secondary roles, such as the strong-voiced, arresting-looking Aaron Lazar as the revolutionary leader Enjolras and a marvelously comic Jenny Galloway doing a superb turn as Mme. Thenardier, are as well done as they've ever been.
The real strength of the production comes in its two protagonists - Alexander Gemignani's Jean Valjean, a wonderfully sung portrait that projects a moral fervor that does Hugo proud, and is perfectly matched by Norm Lewis' fiercely grim but conflicted Javert.
So is "Les Miz" as good as before? Not quite - it doesn't wear as well as Sondheim or Lloyd Webber. But its two principal performers effortlessly evoke the glories of its past.