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A CurtainUp Review
The Return of Les Miserables
By Elyse Sommer
Les Miz was already a Broadway institution when CurtainUp was launched which is why Les Gutman's 1999 review was an examination of the show at mid-life — 12 years after it opened, and 3 years after the creative team felt it needed a sprucing up. The biggest change in this revival — or to be more exact, re-opening — is that the new orchestrations created to suit a smaller orchestra don't take anything away from the show and in fact work beautifully to give it a greater intimacy. Except for one song, "Turning", probably cut in the interest of bringing the curtain down a bit earlier, everything's in place and in the original order.
To be sure, there's nothing quite like seeing a show the first time. That remarkable turntable set is no longer quite the drop dead, new-new thing it was when the show first opened, and the image of Urinetown's saucy satirical take on the student uprising is likely to get a wee bit in the way of the stirring "Do You Hear the People Sing?" But on the whole, this is still one musical that really delivers lots of bang for your buck. All the assets that Les Gutman tallied up to explain Les Misérables' durability (see review below) can be applied to this production. However, you can ignore the negatives pertaining to the cast he saw vis-à-vis the current performers.
Obviously, any long running show like this, with its attendant multiple cast changes, is bound to have some performances that are more stand up and cheer than others. Terrence Mann the original Javert was marvelously menacing, but Norm Lewis brings new excitement and charisma to this Javert, both as an actor and singer. As for Alexander Gemignani's Jean Valjean, despite actually being young enough to play Cosette's lover instead of her father, he's got the acting and vocal chops to be a thrillingly convincing Valjean. Lewis's being an African-American (most unlikely for a 19th Century French policeman) and Gemignani's age don't really matter anyway since this show for all its basis in historic fact is history told through heightened rather than history book reality.
Of the women, the standout in this production is Celia Keenan-Bolger as Eponine. While familiar to most New York audiences as Olive Ostrosky in the quirky musical hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, this gifted young actress is no stranger to more serious musical roles having played Clara in Light in the Piazza during its Chicago run. Daphne Rubin-Vega didn't impress me quite as much even though , the original Mimi in Rent who's also done impressive work in straight plays, would seem a natural for the tragic Fantine. Her acting is fine but her "I Dreamed a Dream" is hardly a dream rendition. On the other hand Aaron Lazar's Enjolaras is everything a romantic young revolutionary should be. If Gary Beach leaves not a scrap of meat unchewed on the comic bone tossed his way in the role of Thenadier, he makes watching the campy antics fun. He's nicely supported by his on stage spouse, Jenny Galloway.
As musically adaptable as Hugo's novel was, Les Miz never was or will be a substitute for reading the book — but I'm not sure that today's short attention span readers wouldn't be looking around for a condensed version of the classic. On balance, this remains a grand and uplifting evening of musical theater and with only a few of the business and political leaders all around us who are stealing far more than a loaf of bread, Jean Valjean's long agony is sure to arouse your empathy as visions of young men and women dying in Iraq make you yearn to see them reborn and singing like Les Miserables' fallen revolutionaries.
Don't be surprised if that limited engagement drags on for at least another six months. Remember all of Frank Sinatra's farewell concerts?
— Les Gutman's Review of Les Miz , 12 years after it's opening, 3 years after it's "freshening up", and 4 years before it's Swan Song — or what turned out to be a respite before yet another run.
I first saw the musical Les Misérables in 1986, during previews for its pre-Broadway run at The Kennedy Center. Back then, the expression "British mega-musical" didn't have the same connotation it does as that "the world's most popular musical" enters its thirteenth season on Broadway.
As we survey the "landmarks" of Broadway, it is appropriate to consider what accounts for this show's unflagging popularity. Unlike many of its counterparts, it has never really depended upon star-power as its draw and is not particularly appealing to non-English-speaking audiences (although it does now offer multilingual audio in four other languages). It is also longer than the entirety of a lot of Broadway shows (the first act alone clocks in at an hour and 45 minutes) and it is structurally complex.
The answer ought to tell producers more than it seems to. Les Misérables has a compelling, poignant story, it has music that's remarkably easy to enjoy and it is directed and designed with more skill and attention to detail than you're likely to have encountered in recent memory. Put these together in one show and you have a straightforward but seemingly unrepeatable formula. And, as evidenced by my most recent viewing, that's more than enough to overcome the lapses that crop up over the course of the 29,000-plus iterations since I first saw it.
Although literary purists are routinely outraged by the ingredients and nuances of Victor Hugo's massive novel that don't make it onto the stage of Messrs. Nunn, Caird, Boublil and Schönberg, this show does indeed tell the essential story (or, more precisely, quintet of interlocking stories), and does so without discarding its underlying social, political and religious fabric.
Here's my highly-abbreviated list of what you'll find within: (1) the life-long cat-and-mouse game between a morally righteous parolee, Jean Valjean (Tim Shew), and a self-righteous police inspector, Javert (Gregg Edelman), (2) the secret life Valjean makes for himself, consumed with fulfilling his promise to a dying woman, Fantine (Jane Bodle), to raise her daughter, Cosette (Stephanie Mieko Cohen while young, and then Tobi Foster), (3) the love story of Cosette and Marius (Peter Lockyer), a Parisian student, (4) the revolutionary atmosphere in 1832 Paris prompted by the neglect of the poor (most clearly embodied in a young street urchin, Gavroche (Max Tuma)), and nurtured by a group of idealistic students, including Marius, under the leadership of Enjolras (Christopher Mark Peterson) and (5) the seedy, corrupt parallel world of the Thénadiers (Nick Wyman and Fuschia), an innkeeper and his wife to whom Fantine has entrusted Cosette. They later show up as the leaders of a bottom-feeding gang in the streets of Paris. Their daughter, Eponine (Rona Figueroa), who is not-so-secretly in love with Marius, figures prominently in the story and, even more so, in the production.)
Purists of a different camp also like to disparage the music and lyrics. It is, indeed, neither terribly sophisticated nor particularly well-crafted, and at this point it sometimes conjures up bad memories of early-eighties top 40. But it is certainly evocative and often quite moving: a pop version of Edith Piaf singing various anthems and ballads, for lack of a better shorthand description. This is not a show about which one would complain that the music is not hum-able; it remains so, not only on the way home but weeks, months and even years later. I like listening to it; so sue me.
Whatever misgivings one might have about the book, music and lyrics, no one can quibble with the monumental feat Trevor Nunn and John Caird collaborate to achieve on stage. A dense, multi-layered story is told with crystal clarity; it sustains itself for over three hours without losing the audience's attention (and with precious little watch-checking); it astonishes. Much can be made of Nunn's talent for directing inanimate objects (the famous turntable, cinematic scene transitions that now seem familiar but that were then revolutionary, breath-taking tableau that eye-poppingly marshall John Napier's remarkable sets and David Hersey's engaging lighting into the service of Hugo's story). It is no more important, however, to the production's ultimate success than the punctilious shaping of the persona of each character, large and small, that permeates this production.
Physically, this production looks and feels fresh, an achievement in its own right. At the time of the show's tenth anniversary, there was a much-publicized "house-cleaning." Nunn and producer Cameron Mackintosh felt the show had become tired and shop-worn. Three years have now passed since that overhaul, more than enough time for the show to wear out again. Happily, it has not. The show's attention to detail extends to its sound and delivery, which conspire to render every word as sharp as a bell even as, to my ear at least, the tempo has been inched up a notch in places.
This is not to say that there are no weak links. The current cast includes several fresh leads as of September 1999, including Tim Shew, Gregg Edelman and Jane Bodle. Shew has played Valjean before, both in New York in the late eighties and in Australia. In the early, younger scenes, Shew is not especially satisfying. Looking a bit like the late Chris Farley, he conveys a hollow, less intense presence than one might hope for. As Valjean matures, however, Shew seems to warm to the role, becoming a forceful, yet soulful father figure. Edelman's Javert is very convincing. While his voice may not be as stentorian as that of the role's American creator, Terrence Mann, it is strong and effective. Jane Bodle makes a memorable Fantine, delivering her "I Dreamed a Dream" solo with just the right sense of fragile strength.
The remaining cast ranges for outstanding to disappointing. At the "top of the heap""are Nick Wyman's Thénardier, and Fuschia's rendition of his wife. Tall and almost lanky, Wyman is both comical and devilish, giving this fun role his own outrageous spin. Fuschia is a stunning counterpoint,adding to her character an intelligent touch of her "blackness," without letting it overrun the performance. Also outstanding are the young men portraying the students. All have tremendous voices, and especially so in the case of Peterson as Enjolras. Peter Lockyer's Marius has great integrity, and is equally well sung. "Red and Black,""essentially a duet between the two, is most impressive, as is Marius's rendition of the emotionally draining "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" in Act II.
The two women in Marius's life are less successful. Although Tobi Foster has a beautiful songbird voice, she is physically all-wrong as Cosette. And whereas Rona Figueroa's Eponine is physically quite believable, she lacks any semblance of the singing voice (strength or range) necessary to get her through her trademark solo, "On My Own," or the duet in which she dies, "A Little Fall of Rain." Also disheartening in this production is young Max Tuma, whose Gavroche was less than powerful and less affecting than one might hope. (On the other hand, among the young performers, Stephanie Mieko Cohen, singing "Castle on a Cloud," was heavenly.)
In this period when we talk of critic-proof shows, work that seems to succeed in spite of itself, here we have the pleasant coïncidence of a show that works becauseof itself. The whole of Les Misérables is greater than the sum of its parts. And that's pretty great.
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Leonard Maltin's 2007 Movie Guide
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide