First Nighter: 'Les Miserables' Returns in Sizzling 21st-Century Upgrade

This isn't your grandfather's. It's the new and enhanced-in-some-ways-diminished-in-others, and it very much takes into account the movie and the possible expectations that it's planted in the eyes, ears and minds of ticket buyers.
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This undated theater image released by The Publicity Office shows a scene from the musical "Les Miserables." The touring production will come to Broadway in March 2014. (AP Photo/The Publicity Office, Catherine Ashmore)
This undated theater image released by The Publicity Office shows a scene from the musical "Les Miserables." The touring production will come to Broadway in March 2014. (AP Photo/The Publicity Office, Catherine Ashmore)

There was a time when musicals bought for the movies had a contract clause stipulating that the film version couldn't be released until after the Broadway run ended. The reasoning was that if the public could see the movie, they'd have no desire to see the live production. Made sense, didn't it?

Apparently not, since that time is long gone. Nowadays -- when more movies are being turned into Broadway musicals than the other way around -- it's very different. Chicago was named best movie of the year 2002, and the Broadway revival is still around -- with Bebe Neuwirth, the original Velma, now game to play Mama Morton.

And then there's Cameron Mackintosh's beloved -- by him and the public -- Les Miserables, which only two years after the blockbuster flick was released is packing them in on London's West End and about to do the same yet again on the Great White Way at the Imperial. That's where it played from 1990 to 2002 and where there's a medallion on the sidewalk commemorating its accomplishment.

But get this!: This isn't your grandfather's Les Miz, as it's more familiarly known. It's the new and enhanced-in-some-ways-diminished-in-others Les Miz, and it very much takes into account the movie and the possible expectations that it's planted in the eyes, ears and minds of ticket buyers.

Take note: The first English go-round -- after the Claude-Michel Schonberg/Alain Boublil-Jean-Marc Natel undertaking was imported to the Royal Shakespeare Company from France and Herbert Kretzmer supplied English lyrics -- was directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird and designed by John Napier and went on to win nine Tonys but included no credit for projections.

Not so, Mackintosh's updated-for-the-21st-century Les Miz. It's directed by recent Mackintosh faves Laurence Connor and James Powell. Perhaps even more significantly, it boasts projections by Fifty-Nine Productions in order to provide the tuner with a cinematic appeal to spectators hungering for something of the sort after wallowing in the movie.

When Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo) carries the wounded Marius (Andy Mientus) through the Paris sewers and is pursued by Javert (Will Swenson), the shifting gloomy-grey 3D-like vistas that Fifty-Nine Productions flash offer new thrills and chills. In addition, Paule Constable's lighting emphasizes more than before the chiaroscuro attributes that French Revolution-struck Eugene Delacroix got onto his canvases. Matt Kinley's set and image design is "inspired by" Victor Hugo's paintings, and that's an atmospheric plus.

We all know who Victor Hugo is, don't we? He's not only a painter but the scribe who dreamed up the operatic 1862 tale of Jean Valjean who stole a loaf of bread for his sister's dying son, was enslaved on a galleon for 19 years and when released, lifted some candlesticks but was admonished by kindly Bishop of Digne (Adam Monley) and thereupon became an upright citizen and even mayor, though still pursued by the determined Javert for skipping parole.

Having promised the shamed Fantine (Caissie Levy) that he'd raise her daughter Cosette (Samantha Hill as the older incarnation), here virtually enslaved as a child (Angeli Negron or McKayla Twiggs) to innkeeper Thenardier (Cliff Saunders) and Madame Thenardier (Keala Settle), Jean Valjean keeps his word.

Of course, that requires him to join revolutionaries Marius and Enjolras (Kyle Scatliffe) on the 1832 barricades. And then there's Eponine (Nikki M. James), in unrequited love with Marius and gallant young Gavroche (Joshua Colley or Gaten Matarazzo) proving themselves in battle.

Okay, the above synopsis is admittedly sketchy but no sketchier than the Nunn-Caird adaptation of the Boublil libretto has ever been. No sense in carrying on about that now, however. The hop-skip-jump approach, which leaves the initially broad-loaf episode to exposition, apparently works well enough for a sturdy tale that perhaps, as Hugo penned it, is plum material for anthems from start to finish.

Schonberg certainly came up with melodies that lodge deeply in the brain and refuse expulsion. Kretzmer's lyrics -- though rhymed couplets on "be" and "me" and "Javert" and "there" abound excessively -- can be uncannily moving. They were in John Cameron's original orchestrations, and they are again in the new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker.

Little need to mention them all, since many if not most of the Les Miz lovers flocking into the Imperial will be humming the tunes on the way in as well as on the way out. Nevertheless, I will specify my favorite single note in Schonberg's score. It's the plunging one on the word "night" in Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream." It's in the lyric "But the tigers come at night." Rarely has night fallen so abruptly, and it gets me every time.

It did again when Levy delivered it with all the emotional subtlety built into the lyric and then some. Levy isn't alone at rendering the Schonberg-Kretzmer songs as beautifully as they've even been rendered. The trios involving Marius, Cosette and Eponine are particularly lovely. James's "On My Own" is tough and touching. Mientus's "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is especially effective, since Mientus, who up until then had seemed a shade callow as Marius, brings a mature disillusion to the sorrowful words.

Then there are Karimloo and Swenson and the numbers they sound out in their cat-and-mouse endeavors. When positioned downstage center (where so many of the singers are compulsively placed), both sing with power that rocks the rafters and stirs the audience. They're both on the young side for the men they portray, and that could be viewed as detrimental. When, for instance, Javert is standing on the bridge before diving to his death from it (wonderful projections there, too), he's meant to be an old man who wasted his life in a wrongful pursuit. It's not the impression given here.

Whatever. At this point, Les Miserables is entrenched in our culture as a musical for the ages. You can't beat it with a stick. So just go ahead and beat a path to it. And when you do, notice that on the program the sole producer named is Cameron Mackintosh. How often does that happen nowadays? Like never?

One final big plus for this revival: It means Gerard Alessandrini, with the next Forbidden Broadway edition, Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!, now playing at the Davenport, can revel in his own revival. Yes, fun lovers, he can revive his hilarious Les Miz send-up. What fun it'll be to see that one again, with its thigh-slapping take on the now highly revered march-towards-the-footlights choreographic maneuver.

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