I went into the latest revival of Les Miserables on Broadway feeling, admittedly, a little “over it.” I asked myself, Is there anything new to discover about this worldwide phenomenon, which has played countless performances around the world in a variety of languages? Stripped of its trademark turntable sets, this new production directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell (which has toured the U.S. and U.K. before returning to the Main Stem) opened on Broadway last week, heralding the actually-fairly-triumphant return of this megamusical. Armed with a sterling cast and a razor-sharp staging, a musical we thought we’d had enough of becomes a vital centerpiece of the spring Broadway season. Who’d’ve thunk an old dog could learn so many new tricks?
In a musical season that hasn’t really brought us a wham-bang standout, the return of Les Miserables reminds us first and foremost of the importance of two key elements: story and score. It’s easy to be cynical about a show that’s become the butt of Broadway jokes as often as it’s laughed its way to the bank, but I dare you, twenty or so minutes into the show, not to empathize with the plights of Fantine, the factory worker-turned-prostitute struggling on behalf of her young daughter, and of Valjean, who’s served nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child.
The story of Valjean, who makes a new life for himself with Fantine’s daughter Cosette while on the lam from the ever-watchful Inspector Javert, will likely be familiar to theatergoers. I won’t retread the plot much further, except to emphasize the aspects of human sacrifice and forgiveness that have made the show a perennial favorite. Despite its dark themes, the musical leaves an audience with a desire to be its best self — encouraging us, during its most stirring moments, to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, to hold our families close, and not to judge a book by its cover.
Embodying the central role of Valjean here is Canadian actor Ramin Karimloo, who brings an ardent vitality and an out-of-this-world singing voice to the part. He brings with him some welcome new vocal phrasings to “switch up” the sound of the role, as does Will Swenson as Javert, whose edgy rock voice is a perfect match for the unrelenting pursuer.
The actors in the supporting roles are decidedly more hit-or-miss. While Caissie Levy (Ghost) perfectly embodies Fantine and lends a smooth sensibility to “I Dreamed a Dream” without sacrificing her character’s sense of loss, Nikki M. James, a standout in The Book of Mormon several seasons back, allows her performance to implode beneath the weight of her nasal, pop-tinged interpretation. Andy Mientus’s handsome but strangely low-key Marius is handily overshadowed by the clarion-voiced Samantha Hill as Cosette, though Cliff Saunders and especially Keala Settle (Hands on a Hardbody) provide hearty comic relief as M. and Mme. Thenardier respectively. The cumulative impression of the cast here nonetheless is a positive one.
In lieu of the original production’s turntable, this new revival utilizes a versatile set that combines physical sets and projections (based on Victor Hugo’s paintings) by Matt Kinley. Kinley’s projections (realized by Fifty-Nine Productions) are a seamless element within the production — images of Valjean’s journey from chain gang member to mayor of a local town to the streets of Paris crosscut seamlessly beneath a layer of fog — and help to add dimension to the settings throughout. Particularly impressive are the later scenes when Valjean, Marius, and Thenardier venture into the dank sewers of Paris. Still, when it comes time for the students of Paris to mount the barricade, the production fulfills expectations in providing fully-realized scenic elements.
There are (mostly) welcome surprises throughout the production — most notably an understated new interpretation of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” using candles (but neither literal tables nor chairs), beautiful acoustic-sounding orchestrations from Christopher Jahnke that hit the same expected beats of John Cameron’s originals with fewer synthesized elements, and a restaged — spoiler alert — suicide scene for Javert that might take a second viewing to get used to.
All in all, this new production represents a refreshening of this thirty-plus-year-old property following the 2012 release of its film adaptation. It’s a sound introduction to the show for those hitherto in the dark but should ruffle few (if any) feathers amongst the already-initiated.