New York City Theater
Suffer! Oh, how everyone suffers in the pop opera version of Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.” But audiences eat it up and even non-fans of the blockbuster, which played 16 years in its initial Broadway outing, should cotton to this second revival, a more intimate and less bombastic affair than previous incarnations.
Cynics and the unconvinced may wonder why sniffles are heard at the finale. Has the flu run rampant throughout the theater? No, people are actually shedding tears over the fates of Éponine and assorted recently deceased. Tears or no, the musical’s sheer melodrama is irresistible.
Hugo’s tale of lovers, deceivers, heroes, orphans and fighters entangled in a French Revolution (no, not that one, the one in 1832) is infused by creators Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil with more unforgettable melodies than all of this season’s musicals put together.
Perhaps this revival works so well because it is the stepchild of the recent, successful movie version. Touches of film realism spice up the stage’s gloomy fantasies, with bits of blue-tinted vulgarity cutting the treacle.
Concentrating on characterization, a top-flight Broadway cast, led by a sensational Ramin Karimloo as the beleaguered Jean Valjean, goes beyond the show’s shameless emotional pull. When Karimloo wafts out those final high notes of “Bring Him Home,” something ethereal is unleashed. The actor imbues Valjean with gravitas, sexiness and honest feeling without going overboard.
As his antagonist, the heat-seeking Javert who pursues the parole-breaking Valjean, Will Swenson skirts the libretto’s many contrivances. Swenson, hitherto a studly leading man, finds the character’s conflict between duty and obsession.
Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle are deliciously evil as the Thénardiers, while Kyle Scatliffe is a stalwart Enjolras and Andy Mientus an empathetic, articulate Marius. Unfortunately, the women fare less well.
What’s the appeal? It can’t be because it’s a classic French novel. It’s neither a history lesson nor a treatise on politics nor a call to revolutionary action.
Maybe it’s the effulgent white light that bathes everyone who dies – and there are a lot of demises – helping them apparently ascend to Heaven. Sing, die, white light, off to the spheres, inevitable tears. Unbeatable.
Whatever the reasons, its appeal is enduring. As directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this “Les Miz” defies auguries. Those who already love it should love it even more. Those who don’t can simply wonder at its well-oiled efficiency.
--David A. Rosenberg
March 31, 2014