Review: Les Miserables

2014-12-11 19.02.27It was one of those evenings that make you understand why people hate New York City. Just about everything seemed to be going wrong thanks to a “smoke condition” at the subway station at West Fourth Street. (A “smoke condition” is apparently a euphemism for “fire”). It took me an extra 40 minutes to get to midtown and I had to take three trains and battle through massive crowds the whole way. And I was one of the lucky ones: my roommate spent three hours in subway hell. I was simply not in the mood for Manhattan.

And then I walked into the Imperial Theatre to see Les Miserables on Broadway, and fell right back in love with the city again.

Now let me just say right here that if you were hoping for an unbiased review of Les Miz, you’ll have to find it somewhere else. Les Miz brought me into theater in the first place, and I’ll always have an enormous affection for it. Many, many times I’ve told the story: when I was 11 or 12 my sister Clare sat me down in front of a cd player one evening, said “Julia, I want you to EXPERIENCE Les Miz,” handed me the libretto, and popped in Disc 1. And off I went into musical theater land. (Did I ever come back? I’m not sure I did, to be honest.) The music, the scope of the story, the outsized emotions, the rousing finale, the tragic nature of the piece, the love stories, even the nineteenth century costumes — all of it feels tailor-made to appeal to a slightly overdramatic 12-year-old.

But it isn’t just that. This sounds idiotic, but Les Miz is also um, pretty good. It’s a muscular show: three hours long but not bloated; tons of melodic richness; skilled storytelling; memorable characters. (Lin-Manuel Miranda once called the lyrics indestructible. Spot on. They aren’t exactly poetic — they’re even clunky at times — but man do they ever get the job done.) It isn’t a perfect show by any means, but it does exactly what it sets out to do, and that’s saying something.

And it’s back on Broadway. This is an entirely new version, with new sets, no turntable, different staging. I wouldn’t say any of this is better or worse than the original, except that it’s enough to keep those of us who have seen Les Miz many (many!) times interested. (Nerdily enough, I even found myself curious about the new costumes. “Oh my goodness!! What will Cosette wear next??”) Far more importantly, the cast is pretty strong. Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean doesn’t quite radiate goodness the way Colm Wilkinson did in the original, but he seems tougher, more convincing as an ex-convict, and ultimately very, very affecting. His counterpart, Will Swenson as Javert, was just as resolute and stern as you’d expect, and Nikki M. James is a pretty edgy Eponine (though I’d love to see her in another role that showcases her comic chops, where I think she shines most), I do like Caissie Levy quite a lot, and she was a strong Fantine, although I vastly prefer a more fragile, less belty “I Dreamed a Dream.” If you’ve seen a show a bunch, you mostly just want to see actors who bring something new to a character, and along with Mr. Karimloo I found this to be most the case with John Rapson as Grantaire, who’s often simply played as a drunk, but here has a very sweet relationship with little Gavroche.

All in all, my biggest quibble with the casting is just the Broadwayness of the ensemble: they looked young and gorgeous and fresh-faced and straight out of acting school. Not terribly convincing as poor, suppressed, miserable French people. I suppose they can’t help that, but I wish the directors, James Powell and Laurence Connor, had gone a little grittier. Otherwise, though, the directors have done a terrific job. This production packs a wallop.

As I left the theater, a thought occurred to me. I don’t know that I ever noticed Les Miz‘s deep irony as a teenager. Not that the show has suddenly turned ironic. Of course not! This musical is still as ridiculously earnest as it ever was. But Les Miz is unaplogetically calling out for social change, for justice for the poor. And yet it’s in a Broadway theater! What could be more commercial and expensive than that? Les Miz is just a cash cow at this point, entertainment for rich people about the miserable and unjust lives of the poor. It feels completely unfair to fault the show for this — I mean, it’s not as though I accuse Book of Mormon of hypocrisy just because it is making a lot of money — but something about its message feels craven. “Will you join in our crusade” indeed.

But that’s a different discussion. If you go see Les Miz and you’re wondering if theater can ever be an effective agent for social change, you are missing the point to some extent. Go see Les Miserables to see a moving story brought to life, to hear lovely songs,to enjoy the emotional rollercoaster, to get a sense of the epic. I think that’s what Clare meant when she told me to “EXPERIENCE Les Miz.”

My Grade: A
Running Time: 3 Hours
Ticket price: $49 (TDF)
Worth it: Yes
Standing Ovation Watch: Yes

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