Arts Reviews

Les Miserables Reviewed

By Doug Strassler Mar 26, 2007, 6:01 GMT

Les Miserables Reviewed

Based on Victor Hugo\'s opus, Les Miserables tells the story of Jean Valjean, released on parole after 19 years on the chain gang, finds that the \'ticket-of-leave\' he must display by law, condemns him to be an outcast. Only the saintly Bishop of Digne treats him kindly and Valjean, embittered by years of hardship, repays him by stealing some silver. Valjean is caught and brought back by the police, and ...more

There's no greater Act I showstopper than "One Day More" in Les Miserables. With its cacophony of sound and rousing choreography, this passionate anthem has become a standard-bearer for all future shows to match. On the eve of revolution, all characters find that they have everything on the line: Reformed convict Jean Valjean looks forward to the freedom of exile; Javert, the rigid lawman following him, dream of quashing the revolution; Enjolras, the galvanizing student dreams of the changes to come; Marius worries about losing his newfound love with Cosette, while young street urchin Eponine mourns her unrequited love for Marius. Few shows have this much plot going on, let alone so many harmonies this well-strung together.  It doesn't get any better than this.

Neither, quite, does the rest of the current Les Miserables revival, directed by both John Caird and Trevor Nunn. Playing the Broadhurst Theatre, this show comes less than four years after the original run closed, just in time for its twentieth anniversary, but it still bears the wear of a long run, rather than the invigoration of a newly mounted production.

A few minor changes have been made, songs replaced and scenes cut, but most numbers remain, keeping close to the original Victor Hugo adaptation's three-hour running time, which can not only tire the audience, but push its actors' resources as well. That may be one reason why Alexander Gemignani, a twenty-something actor, who plays the significantly older Valjean.  Gemignani acquits himself quite well in the role of a man unjustly sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and niece. He breaks his parole in order to start a new life, pursued all the while by policeman Javert, who lives by the rubric that people can never be changed. When poor beleaguered factory worker Fantine (Lea Salonga) dies, Valjean takes in her daughter, Cosette (Ali Ewoldt).

Les Miserables has several men responsible for bringing it to musical life - book writer and lyricist Alain Boublil and musician Claude-Michel Schoenberg (the same team that created Miss Saigon and this season's The Pirate Queen), and English translator Herbert Kretzmer - and condensing Hugo's storylines on the eve of Parisian revolution in 1832. This version of the musical keeps a few of those plot threads too dormant; for example, Cosette and Marius (Adam Jacobs) fall in love while he takes Eponine (played by understudy Marissa McGowan in the performance I saw) for granted, but I never got the sense of the emptiness Marius knew before Cosette, always a bland character, came into his life. Also, the arrangement of "On My Own," an anthem for many teenage girls, though well-sung by McGowan, is not quite as riveting as it used to be. A lot happens in this show, and happens quickly; it is important not to gloss over any plot point or relationship.

Lea Salonga as Fantine. Photo By Joan Marcus

Lea Salonga as Fantine. Photo By Joan Marcus
As good as, if not better, than in previous productions, is Norm Lewis' remarkable turn as Javert. Lewis takes a  two-dimensional man who exists as little more than a platitude and elevates him to a man whose obsessive life degenerates into shame and disgrace. His articulate delivery in such songs as "Stars," "Soliloquy," and, most especially, his confrontation with Valjean, provide real dramatic heft. Aaron Lazar dazzles as Enjolras, and Salonga, a replacement for the early-to-leave Daphne Rubin-Vega, is theater royalty, having won a Tony as the original lead, Kim, in Miss Saigon, and previously played Eponine during the original run of this show. It's a thrill to watch her, and her delivery of the yearning paean "I Dreamed a Dream" can wound any soul. Jacobs, too, makes Marius less of a milquetoast than previous performers (and does a great job on "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables") and Tony-winner Gary Beach (The Producers) steals many a scene as the bottom-feeding Thenardier. Only Gemignani, for all his necessary stamina, falters on Valjean's eleven o'clock number "Bring Him Home."

This production of Les Miserables contains many of the ingredients that made this show, er, revolutionary when it first bowed - the great songs, the revolving stage, and John Napier's breathtaking set that comes together to form the barricade.  For ardent fans and newbies, this revival is a must-see. For those that have seen it before, though, they may recognize that all of these ingredients do no coalesce quite as well as they once did. Les Miserables, possibly the greatest of modern musicals, will always make a great meal. But this revival can stand to be a little fresher.

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