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Les Misérables

The revival of this beloved musical version of Victor Hugo's sweeping novel is well-sung. logo
A scene from Les Misérables
(© Michael Le Poer Trench)
Like the forever-revolving turntable in the middle of John Napier's busy-busy set, Cameron Mackintosh's production of Les Misérables has come 'round Manhattan way again after only a brief hiatus. The show, which initially bowed on Broadway just shy of 20 years ago, closed its doors barely more than three years back.

There are those, like myself, who will insist that the blockbuster musical's title refers more to besieged audience members than to the large cast of Victor Hugo's early 19th-century characters who crowd the stage for nearly three hours. But, while I've adamantly resisted the musical's portentous charms, even I have to admit there are many things to be said in favor of the show and this generally well-sung revival.

At the top of the list are the six or seven high-powered ballads that composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer have supplied for the cast. Indeed, every few minutes like clockwork, director/adaptors John Caird and Trevor Nunn make sure to position an actor at stage center to sing his or her battered heart out. Benighted-factory-worker-turned-prostitute Fantine (Daphne Rubin-Vega) gets the first turn with "I Dreamed a Dream," the lament containing that ravishing low note at the end of the phrase, "But the tigers come at night."

In Act II, unlucky-in-love Eponine (Celia Keenan-Bolger) aims searing notes at the rafters with "On My Own." The hunted, haunted Jean Valjean (Alexander Gemignani) flaunts his falsetto on the tear-jerking "Bring Him Home." Surviving student revolutionary Marius (Adam Jacobs) is handed "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," which says something trenchant about the futility of uprisings.

On top of those ditties, which have a true stick-to-the-ribs quality, there's the rambunctious "Master of the House," which Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway as the conniving Thenardiers lustily sing with a bunch of rowdy hostelry patrons, and the not-to-be-forgotten group anthem, "Do You Hear the People Sing," led by head revolutionary Enjolras (Aaron Lazar).

Much of the reason these numbers -- which boast new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke -- succeed is that they're sung extremely well by the soloists and the chorus under music director Kevin Stites' fastidious supervision. Indeed, "sung" is hardly the word for Rubin-Vega's "I Dreamed a Dream," which seems to have taken over her entire shaking body. Gemignani brings gruff conviction to his tunes, although he continually has problems sustaining his final notes -- whether in or out of falsetto.

As Valjean's lifelong foe, Inspector Javert, Norm Lewis has a voice like the Orient Express gathering momentum; it's a shame that the songs handed him are consistently pedestrian. He also seems far less sinister than Terence Mann did in the same role two decades back. As the rallying revolutionary, Lazar unleashes a baritone so thrilling that passers-by on the street may have stopped in their tracks to pay heed.

Before I run out of the things to say in favor of a show that just won't be stopped -- like the will of the oppressed people it's honoring -- let me also tip my hat to Andreanne Neofitou's ragtag costumes, David Hersey's atmospheric lighting, and the booming sound design by Jon Weston and Andrew Bruce/Autograph.

However, there's less to say on behalf of a property that from start to long-postponed finish feels like Cliff Notes with songs interspersed and severely diminishes Hugo's post-revolutionary France, where the common man still hasn't benefited from the rights conferred on him (or her). Few literary critics have ever made a fervent brief for the beauty of Victor Hugo's prose, but it's indisputably better than it sounds here. (The original French version is by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with additional material by James Fenton.)

In order to cover the text's sprawling grounds, large chunks of the book have been left out, which renders the libretto a compendium of basic plot points that beg some questions. For instance, after Jean Valjean steals the silverware and vows to lead the good life, he's suddenly the mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. How did he get there? And why does the novel's relentless Javert seem so relenting in his pursuit of Valjean?

To many audience members, none of this will matter. The bottom line with Les Miz is this: If you like this sort of musical, this is the sort of musical you'll like.

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