My fervent hope entering the Imperial Theater was that the revival of Les Miserables would banish from memory the horrific film version of the beloved musical. I still cringe at the thought of Russell Crowe singing; of Anna Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried; and of Hugh Jackman in a role he was so totally wrong for. This cast of misfits singing One Day More at the Oscars still causes nightmare.
But that was then, this is now. This revival demonstrates that Les Miz still has its old magic. The opening bars from the orchestra bring the promise that we are about to watch something special, something we’ve missed for a long time. And everyone’s favorite showstoppers – Master of the House, One Day More and Bring Him Home - stop the show in its tracks, just as they should. (The film managed, somehow, to methodically destroy each one.)
It’s safe to assume, particularly from audience reaction, that most in attendance already know the show, its characters, plot and glorious music. Return visitors will notice changes. Here and there, lyrics have been changed and verses cut. The turntable is gone, replaced with projections on the rear wall. Some changes add poignancy – the bishop greeting Jean Valjean in heaven – while others are less successful, namely the suicide of Javert. In the original, this scene was a dramatic feat of stagecraft; this time, less so.
Does Les Miz still pack the punch it did in its heyday a generation ago? In all honesty: no. This is largely due to less than stellar casting. As Fantine, Caissie Levy is disappointing and that character’s death is devoid of any drama. Nikki M. James, perfect in The Book of Mormon, is less successful playing Eponine, though acquits herself well singing On My Own. As Marius, Andy Mientus’s Empty Chairs at Empty Tables also passes without a whimper. And the comic relief of the Thenardiers, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle (so good in Hands on a Hardbody), just seems silly this time.
Yet what is lacking in the supporting cast is made up for, big time, in its two stars. Making his long-awaited Broadway debut as Jean Valjean, Iranian-born Ramin Karimloo is a fine actor with a powerful voice and a strong stage presence. Watch as his hands tremble. Even better is Will Swenson. Known for his jovial roles in Hair and as a drag queen in Priscilla Queen of The Desert, Swenson’s Javert shows that he can do drama and do it sublimely. On stage together, the two bring a physicality to their roles that takes their confrontation scenes to new depths, making them mesmerizing to watch.
The real Les Miz is back. And as the company charges toward us singing “Do You Hear The People Sing” even the most jaded and cynical among us are reminded, once again, why Les Miz is our favorite show of all time.