nytheatre.com review by Lynn Marie Macy
November 28, 2010
Poet, playwright, and novelist Victor Hugo (1802-1885) completed his epic novel Les Miserables in 1862, while in exile from a politically troubled 19th century France. The novel's impact was felt around the world and Hugo's work has significantly influenced subsequent writers who rose to prominence throughout that century and beyond. Cameron Macintosh's 25th anniversary production of the musical is an even greater testament to Hugo's life and works.
Boublil and Schonberg's Les Miserables originally opened in Paris in 1980. In 1985 the English language version opened in London's West End (and is still running there!) The play finally landed on Broadway in 1987, winning eight Tonys. Hugo's story follows the trials and travails of convicted thief Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for nineteen years after stealing bread to feed his sister's dying child. The novel clearly depicts the brutalities and injustices of society but in essence is an uplifting tale of love and redemption.
Directors Laurence Conner and James Powell have put together a fantastic revival. The production is stunningly and vividly re-imagined. Gone is the infamous turntable. Scenic and image designer Matt Kinley instead uses the affecting artwork of Victor Hugo as his inspiration and gives us a series of animated projections, ruggedly constructed screens, and complex mobile set pieces that rapidly take us from location to location. It all works splendidly and with Paule Constable's lighting thoroughly captures the spirit of the novel and our imaginations—achieving some amazing effects along the way.
Schonberg's magnificent score and new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke do not disappoint. Conner and Powell's staging is visually appealing and effectively and efficiently drives the action forward. The diverse ensemble of performers is exemplary. The cast is lead by Lawrence Clayton in the tour de force role of the fugitive Jean Valjean. Clayton tackles the role with energy and skill and believably takes us with him on his journey towards salvation. Valjean's nemesis, the unrelenting policeman Javert, is brought vibrantly from the page to the stage by Andrew Varela. Betsy Morgan gives us a heart-wrenching Fantine—tragic and delicate. Her lovely haunting voice resonates for the remainder of the evening. Michael Kostroff makes a great Thenardier, slimy and humorous and yet perhaps the most dangerous character in the story. Shawna M. Hamic as Madame Thenardier is committed, creative, and fun but comes across a bit too young, spunky, and fresh faced to achieve the edgier, more jaded nuances that a more mature actress could have brought to the role. Lewis Grosso (who shares the part of Gavroche with Josh Caggiano) is an utter delight as the cheeky street urchin. Chasten Harmon as Eponine is a vocal wonder. Her rendition of "On My Own" is a show-stopper and her performance touching. Jenny Latimer is sweet and pitch-perfect as the innocent Cosette. Jeremy Hays does spectacular work as the revolutionary student Enjolras, who enlists his fellow students to fight for freedom on the barricades. I can go no further without mentioning Jon Fletcher who took over for Justin Scott Brown in the role of Marius just a short time before curtain on opening night. Fletcher played Marius to perfection with earnest charm and great heart and without missing a beat. Bravo!
I highly recommend this newly envisioned production of Les Miserables at Paper Mill Playhouse. The music is fantastic, the design truly amazing, and the ensemble is superb. The only issue may be that the piece overall is not gritty enough. But perhaps there are those who may prefer their 19th century French characters more on the washed side.