Sunday, June 15, 2014

Les Miserables Back On Broadway - It Never Gets Old

Regular readers of The White Rhino Report are familiar with my obsession with "Les Miserables" - the novel, the musical, the film.  So it should not surprise you to learn that I felt that I had to see the latest production that is causing Broadway audiences to storm the barricades and the box office at the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street.

For me, seeing a new version of an old favorite like "Les Miserables" is akin to checking out a beloved restaurant that was closed for renovations and has re-opened in a new location with some new kitchen staff and servers, but using the same trusted ingredients and recipes.  There is always some trepidation and lots of questions.  Will the new location and decor feel welcoming and feel like "home"?  Will the new chefs and wait staff appreciate the rich history of the institution and carry on with the traditions that discerning diners have come to expect?  Will the old dishes still satisfy and bring a smile to my lips and a warm sense of satisfaction to my heart?

I brought similar trepidation and questions to the new Broadway production of this record-setting musical that opened 27 years ago.  Having tasted many satisfying "meals" as an audience member over the years, I have certain high standards and expectations of the production and of the performers and of the overall mise-en-scene.  I am pleased to report that the show has been curated lovingly by the current creative team and cast. In other words, come on in, the water's fine! This production still has the power to produce chills and tears.

Let's start with technical aspects.  The set has been simplified - no more revolving turntable.  The new configuration works well.  Set design by Matt Kinley is wonderful, with elements of the Paris neighborhood spilling into the mezzanine boxes, creating an all-enveloping atmosphere of the historic period.  The projected images based on paintings of Victor Hugo are a subtle change and very nice addition to the overall feel of the production.  The projections, realized by 59 PRODUCTIONS, are spectacular, especially in the scene in the sewers of Paris.  Lighting is very effective as designed by Paul Constable, as is the very clear sound design of Mick Potter.

Laurence Connor and James Powell direct an excellent cast.  The ensemble sound is strong vocally and dramatically, and the leads are all able to pull their weight - carrying on the traditions of cast members before them and adding their own twists.

Ramin Karimloo is a very moving Jean Valjean.  His rendition of "Bring Him Home" is among the finest I have heard.  This song is so vocally demanding that it often serves as the litmus test of whether a particular actor has the vocal chops to portray Valjean.  I have one minor quibble with Mr. Karimloo's otherwise fine performance.  In a song early in the play, he showed us his head voice upper register capabilities.  I would have preferred that he held that tool in reserve until the iconic moment when he sings: "God on high . . ."  I want the sound at that moment to be virginal.

Will Swenson as Javert does a fine job, and his "Stars" is up to the high expectations I hold for that important moment in the show.

The chemistry that is needed to make the Thenardiers believable is there in spades between Keala Settle and Cliff Saunders.

Nikki M. James brings a smoky, bluesy vocal quality to her role as Eponine, and it worked very well for me.

I had heard reports that Kyle Scatliffe's portrayal of student leader Enjolras had some weaknesses, but on the day that I heard him sing, I could find no fault.  I asked someone knowledgeable about the show about this discrepancy.  I was told that in the past several weeks, Mr. Scatcliffe has relaxed, stopped trying too hard and has gained confidence and has grown into the role.

Caissie Levy is a very effective Fantine, and in the brief time between the factory scene and her death, she portrayals beautifully the dramatic changes that are called for in this pivotal character.

Samantha Hill is a lovely Cosette, and one can see why Marius is instantly smitten with her.  "A Heart Full of Love" sung with Marius and Eponine is particularly effective.

In the performance that I attended, the role of Marius was played for the first time by Understudy Chris McCarrell.  He brought a freshness and boyish innocence to the role that I found intriguing and appropriate.

Let me mention a few things about the ensemble. Nathaniel Hackmann plays the Factory Foreman and one of the students.  His singing voice and stage presence stood out among a generally outstanding troupe.  Each man and woman in the ensemble did something personal and idiosyncratic to make their character(s) something more than generic - a facial tic, and gesture, a way of standing or walking - that made their individual characters breathe and live.  Here is one example.  Arbender Robinson plays Montparnasse, a member of Thenadier's gang.  During the attempted robbery scene at Valjean's house, he is perched atop a stone wall.  I noticed that he struck a pose that was very leonine.  Knowing that Mr. Robinson had previously played in the cast of "Lion King," I asked him about his lion-like pose.  He laughed, admitted that it was an intentional homage to that show, and was surprised and appreciative of the fact that I noticed that nuanced moment in the show and his performance.

This is a production of "Les Miserables" that will be pleasing to audience members who already know and love the show.  It is also a wonderfully accessible version for those that are experiencing the wonder and grace of "Les Miserables" for the first time.

I invite you to take a trip to the Imperial Theatre.  This show never grows old.



Les Miserables Website

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