nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 16, 2006
I saw Les Miserables many times during its first Broadway run (which lasted more than 16 years, from 1987 until just three years ago). I kept coming back because I love the show, for its stirring themes and its masterful stagecraft; and each time I saw it, I was always pleasantly surprised to find it in excellent shape, as if it were brand new. Somehow producer Cameron Mackintosh and his staff had found the formula to keep this would-be behemoth under control, and as actors rotated in and out of dozens of roles on the musical's famous revolving set, the passion and precision of opening night never seemed to get lost.
Which is why the lackluster revival of Les Miserables that has just opened at the Broadhurst Theatre is such a huge disappointment! All the thoughtful maintenance that characterized the original production is mostly missing from the revival—a revival, by the way, that hardly feels necessary under the best of circumstances, coming so quickly on the heels of the long-running original. The show has been physically shrunk to fit on the smaller Broadhurst stage, and it's been compressed to come in at around 2 hours, 45 minutes (the original lasted nearly 3-1/2 hours). This might have felt like slimming rather than diminution if the performers' skills weren't also so dwarfed by the work of their predecessors. The current Les Miz is badly miscast across the board, lacking even a single stellar player. It feels like the animatronic version of a show that, thousands of fans can tell you, once lived and breathed spectacularly.
The story, from Victor Hugo's mammoth novel, is about Jean Valjean, who was unjustly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to try to feed his sister and her child and, some 20 years later, breaks his parole to start a new life for himself. Valjean lives to serve, even if his means toward that end cause him to violate the law; his nemesis, the policeman Javert, sees the world only in black-and-white terms and can't comprehend how good can ever come from the (presumed) debased heart and soul of a criminal. Javert pursues Valjean across France for decades, providing the main plot thread of the show; other storylines involve others who give unselfishly of themselves to aid the downtrodden, such as the factory worker Fantine, who sells her hair and eventually her body to care for her child; the idealistic student Enjolras, who leads his fellows to a hopeless fight on the barricades in the Paris rebellion of 1832; and the street urchins Eponine and Gavroche, who both give their lives for love, the former for the student Marius, the latter for his people, the "miserables" of the play's title.
Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and librettist/lyricists Alain Boublil (French version) and Herbert Kretzmer (English version) telescope Hugo's sprawling story into a gorgeous allegorical spectacle about compassion, morphing the specifically Christian themes of the novel into a more generic and contemporary moral that pretty much everyone can agree upon: "And remember the truth that once was spoken / To love another person is to see the face of God." Co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn have devised a non-stop cinematic staging that keeps the story moving forward through a decade and a half and dozens of locales without being confusing or inaccessible. Production designer John Napier built a miraculous set whose two major pieces form the slums of Paris and the rebels' barricades in show-stopping tableaux. Costume designer Adreanne Neofitou and lighting designer David Hersey provide the rest of the remarkable environment. The work of all of these gifted artists is more or less preserved intact from the original to this revival. (The orchestrations are the only element to undergo change, alas not for the better.)
What's missing is a cast to deliver the songs and story with the emotional gravitas and power that they deserve. Alexander Gemignani is too young and callow to convince us he's Jean Valjean, and his rendition of "Bring Him Home," the glorious hymn that should stop the show, is unpersuasive. Norm Lewis as Javert does better by his big second act number, but we don't feel the fervor and frustration of this driven man. And so it goes down the line: Aaron Lazar isn't sufficiently commanding or obsessed to make us ready to lay down our lives for his Enjolras; Adam Jacobs is a wispy and uninteresting Marius; Gary Beach is a too-broad Thenardier (admittedly this character does provide this serious show with its only comic relief, but he should be menacing as well, and Beach never is). Celia Keenan-Bolger might be a decent Eponine were she able to put over her big song "On My Own"; but the only way to describe Daphne Rubin-Vega's attempt at Fantine (and the show's signature song "I Dreamed a Dream") is outright failure: her loose, edgy acting style isn't suited to the character at all and her voice is simply not up to the demands of the role.
Drew Sarich, lately of Lestat and Jacques Brel, plays the cynical student Grantaire. I thought I was going to be bowled over by his interpretation of the role, until he brought out a guitar to accompany himself in the song "Drink With Me to Days Gone By." He's playing a young man contemplating the likely imminent deaths of all of his friends and companions for the sake of a cause that's feeling increasingly lost; but what we see Sarich do is concentrate on changing chords for his big number. This is a huge, wretched mistake.
Interestingly, some of the (essentially anonymous) members of the ensemble prove most impressive. The female chorus is especially strong, whether as prostitutes singing "Lovely Ladies" or as the mothers and wives of the lost students singing "Turning." They alone seem to grasp the glowing humanity at the heart of this show.
Les Miserables is so well-crafted that even a production as sub-standard as this one can still almost work. Our glimpse of the students lying dead on the barricades still brings a hush to the theatre that's almost unimaginable in any other show (even though, thanks to the too-narrow stage of the Broadhurst, we can actually see the actors getting up and leaving the stage as the set revolves). And the show's uplifting ending remains potent and stirring.
But I'd hate to recommend this revival to anybody: if you've seen Les Miz before, you're better off holding on to your memories rather than allowing this inferior rendition to taint them; and if you haven't, then you won't be seeing it in all its glory here, not really. I fear that Mackintosh & Co have brought Les Miz back prematurely for reasons that have to do with business rather than art, and that's a shame because the original version proved you could move millions of people in the theatre and show a tidy profit doing it if you keep things first class all the way.