Les Misérables – Imperial Theatre, New York

3. Ramin Karimloo as Valjean - photo Matthew Murphy

Ramin Karimloo in Les Misérables at the Imperial Theatre, New York. Picture: Matthew Murphy

Les Misérables continues at the Imperial Theatre, New York, in an open-ended run.

All those hard-living, hard-suffering, hard-singing people of 19th century France, known collectively as Les Misérables, are back on Broadway, and as the French would say, they are still tres formidable. This giant-sized pop opera, based on Victor Hugo’s epic novel, first hit the Main Stem in 1987 to collect nearly 6,700 performances, and then returned in 2006 for a briefer stay of less than 500 showings.

The current production is a much-heralded makeover under the auspices of producer Cameron Mackintosh, with Laurence Connor and James Powell, both of whom have had past associations with the work, taking over the directorial reins from the original directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Nunn and Caird continue to be credited for their adaptation. As I’m sure you all know, the piece was originally created in French by composer Claude Michel Schönberg and lyricist Alain Boublil, both of whom collaborated on the script. The English lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer.

Don’t mistake ‘makeover’ or ‘newly imagined’ – as this reboot has often been described – to mean it’s on the cheap. The production is as rich-looking and ear-filling as ever. Gone is the turntable that gave the original production a captivating fluidity, but the new set and image design by Matt Kinley, using Victor Hugo’s paintings as an inspiration, are terrifically evocative of time and place. As projections fade in and out and the scenic pieces shift places, bathed in the painterly chiaroscuro of Paule Constable’s lighting, they add to the show’s energy, as well as its visual beauty. Another major component are the handsomely detailed costumes of Andreane Neofitou and Christine Rowland. I can’t really say what the new orchestrations entail, but it all went brilliantly from delicate to forceful, as required.

Perhaps most significantly, this new mounting has as its centerpiece a majestic performance by Ramin Karimloo, a stalwart of London theatre making his Broadway debut as Jean Valjean. As the one-time convict forced continually to dodge his past in a search for self-redemption, Karimloo paints a portrait of great range, journeying from galvanising fury at the injustice of the law to compassionate nobility and final grace. And his powerful singing elevates it all, from the red-hot anger of his ‘Soliloquy’, detailing the character’s early history in the prologue, to the quietly spellbinding ‘Bring Him Home’ of Act II.

As his relentless pursuer Inspector Javert, Will Swenson contributes another layer of strength. He brings dimension, baritone vibrancy and even a touch of sympathy to this man with his narrow sense of crime and punishment and his obsession with Valjean. There are also top-notch performances by Caissie Levy as Fantine, the doomed woman whose daughter Valjean takes under his wing; Samantha Hill, as the daughter, Cosette; Andy Mientus as Marius, the student revolutionary who falls in love with Cosette at first sight, and Nikki M James, as Eponine, a fellow revolutionary silently in love with Marius. They each have their big musical moments, and they give them their all without ever turning oppressive, keeping everything within the context of the churning plot. There’s also a great ensemble, working together to imbue a sense of life into a society of the past.

Embodying the endlessly corrupt innkeeper Thenardier and his wife, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle could be chided for taking the characters’ comedy over the top. But I won’t. They bring a welcome note or two of frivolity to lighten all the dark doings.

Les Misérables certainly has its detractors. They disparage it as being bombastic in its music, simplistic in its lyrics and just generally overwrought and overlong. But one man’s poison etc. And this new production proves once again it can hold an audience enthralled through its three hours or so of running time as much as anything on the boards.

And as the performance reviewed demonstrated, that audience now includes hordes of young adults, who seem to know and respond ecstatically to every measure of the score and every name in the character list – thanks to the movie version, I suppose, and the repeated use of the songs on TV singing contests and other musical shows. And let’s not forget the older fans, like Will (Javert) Swenson’s father. In his programme bio, Swenson notes his performance is “for my dad, who hasn’t taken Les Mis out of his CD player since he put it in there 25 years ago.”

Ron Cohen

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