Les Miserables has been around for a long time. From the Victor Hugo novel to various stage and screen adaptations, the story of Jean Valjean, who was turned into prisoner 24601 because he stole a loaf of bread, has entertained audiences for generations. But believe it or not, I had never seen the Claude-Michel Schonberg-Alain Boublil musical on stage until this most recent revival, which opened tonight at the same theatre that was home to its original Broadway run, the Imperial. I am a little disappointed to report that I didn’t develop more ardent feelings for the musical as a whole, but there are absolutely knock out moments in this production.
A quick recap of the story: Valjean (Ramin Karimloo) is paroled from prison life but continues to be pursued by Inspector Javert (Will Swenson). While being pursued, he promises the dying Fantine (Caissie Levy) that he’ll look after her daughter, Cosette (Angeli Negron as a little girl, Samantha Hill as an adult), who has been looked after by the Thenadiers (Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle). Flash forward several years and student revolutionary Enjolras (Kyle Scatliffe) is leading the fight, with the privileged Marius (Andy Mientus) as part of his “cabinet.” Marius has caught the eye of the Thenadiers’ daughter, Eponine (Nikki M. James), but unfortunately for her, Cosette has caught his eye. (An even fuller plot explanation can be found in my review of the recent screen adaptation.)
I remember reading the novel in middle school and finding it to be a rather sophisticated soap opera. There are plenty of compelling plot points, what with the cat and mouse game Valjean and Javert are playing, several characters’ search for redemption, the political stances and the love for which many are fighting. Yet, I’ve never loved the show. Sure, I hadn’t seen it on stage, but I knew all the music. It just never quite grabbed me, and seeing it on stage didn’t do much to change that.
Despite this being a good production (I think, I can’t make an equitable comparison) with just a few drawbacks, there’s something missing from Les Miserables as a musical that keeps me from being completely enamored of it, the way so many musical theatre acolytes and even fair-weather fans are. Still, even if the show as a whole didn’t move me, certain moments absolutely resonated as I watched the story come to life in person.
The first of those moments was Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream.” We all think we know this song, what it means and what Fantine is going through, and many talented and lovely ladies, including Randy Graff, Patti LuPone and Anne Hathway, have put their stamp on the tune. But Caissie Levy leaves them all in the dust. Here, Levy (Hair, Murder Ballad) sounds more classically trained than she ever has (the same goes for her frequent co-star Will Swenson; we’ll get to him next) and brings heart wrenching power and pathos to the song. Without histrionics, without ridiculous close-ups and without blubbering, Levy brings new insight to Fantine, giving an incredibly moving, bravura performance.
Equally impressive is the always welcome Will Swenson, who also appeared with Levy in Hair and Murder Ballad. He, too, sounds different than he usually does; his voice is less rock and roll and modern than it typically is, which is appropriate and necessary for this score. There is something so magnetic about his stage presence that even though we’re supposed to be rooting for Valjean, during their scenes together I couldn’t stop watching Javert. (By the way, if Russell Crowe wants to learn how to sing “Stars,” he should watch and listen to Swenson.)
I was pre-disposed to liking Levy and Swenson so as much as they blew me away, the real discovery was Kyle Scatliffe, making his Broadway debut as Enjolras. Full disclosure: Since Aaron Tveit portrayed Enjolras on film, I had impossibly high standards set for Scatliffe. Let me be among the first to say, though, welcome to Broadway, Scatliffe. He fully commands the stage, bringing to life the intensity boiling over in Enjolras. He sings in a way that would rouse you to follow him anywhere, even to a barricade where death is nearly inevitable. Aaron Tveit would be proud.
Not everyone wowed, though. As Marius, Andy Mientus, who has appeared on Smash and in the national tour of Spring Awakening, is just fine. His voice is decent enough but he doesn’t do anything to make the role his own. Instead, he kind of blends in, and you wouldn’t pay him much attention if he weren’t in the featured role of Marius. Also, he’s a pretty small guy. That is certainly not a crime but next to some of the other actors, especially Scatliffe, he looks puny, unimpressive, weak and childlike. (In about six months, the little dude playing the young Gavroche, Gaten Matarazzo, will be taller than him.)
And though a deserving Tony Award winner for The Book of Mormon, Nikki M. James is flat as Eponine. Pretty much every musical theatre hopeful wants to sing “On My Own,” and James just does nothing with it. That’s not to say that what she does is bad, but, like Mientus, James doesn’t make the song her own. She does shine more during her big number than throughout act one, during which she comes off as particularly blah, but “On My Own” has the potential to bring down the house and it doesn’t come close. (Mientus’s “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” also fails to live up to the same potential.)
But leading the ensemble is Ramin Karimloo, giving a strong if not totally grabbing performance as Jean Valjean. Karimloo has a long history with Les Miserables, having played several roles over the years, and while he has many West End and Canadian theatre credits to his name, this marks his Broadway debut. Valjean is a taxing role and Karimloo attacks it with great verve and vigor, and has a terrific voice. His rendition of “Bring Him Home,” for the entirety of which directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have him simply sitting on the barricades, made the audience go wild.
- Set and Image Design is by Matt Kinley; the set pieces move about fluidly but noisily, to a distracting degree
- “Projections realized” by Fifty-nine Productions, and they help to bring the more cinematic moments to life