Theatre Review for Les Miserables
Call 732-280-3434 Fax 732-280-3444
At that point in the gripping pop opera at the Broadway, the strands of narrative culled from Victor Hugo's novel of early-19th-century France intertwine in a huge undulating tapestry. The unjustly hounded fugitive Jean Valjean (Colm Wilkinson) is once more packing his bags for exile on the "never-ending road to Calvary," even as his eternal pursuer, the police inspector Javert (Terrence Mann), plots new malevolent schemes. The young lovers Marius and Cosette are exchanging tearful farewells while Marius's unrequited admirer, Eponine, mourns her own abandonment. And everywhere in the Paris of 1832 is the whisper of insurrection, as revolutionary students prepare to mount the barricade.
Were "Les Miserables" unfolding as a novel - or in one of its many film adaptations - these events would be relayed sequentially, or through literary or cinematic cross-cutting. But in the musical theater at its most resourceful, every action can occur on stage at once. Such is the thunderous coup that brings down the Act I curtain.
The opera-minded composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, having earlier handed each character a gorgeous theme, now brings them all into an accelerating burst of counterpoint titled "One Day More." The set designer John Napier and lighting designer David Hersey peel back layer after layer of shadow - and a layer of the floor as well - to create the illusion of a sprawling, multilayered Paris on the brink of upheaval. Most crucially, the directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird choreograph the paces of their players on a revolving stage so that spatial relationships mirror both human relationships and the pressing march of history.
The ensuing fusion of drama, music, character, design and movement is what links this English adaptation of a French show to the highest tradition of modern Broadway musical production. One can hardly watch the Act I finale without thinking of the star-crossed lovers and rival gangs preparing for the rumble in the "Tonight" quintet of "West Side Story" - or of the revolving-stage dispersal of Tevye's shtetl following the pogrom in "Fiddler on the Roof."
In "Les Miserables," Mr. Nunn and Mr. Caird have wedded the sociohistorical bent, unashamed schmaltz and Jerome Robbins staging techniques from those two American classics with the distinctive directorial style they've developed on their own at the Royal Shakespeare Company. This production is the Nunn-Caird "Nicholas Nickleby" gone gloriously show biz -which is to say, with conviction, inspiration and taste.
The evening may not appeal to those enraptured by the 1,300-page edition of Hugo. The musical thinks nothing of condensing chapters of exposition or philosophical debate into a single quatrain or unambiguous confrontation; encyclopedic digressions and whole episodes are thrown out. Unlike "Nicholas Nickleby," which slavishly attempted to regurgitate its entire source, "Les Miserables" chooses sweeping and hurtling motion over the savoring of minute details. That artistic decision, however arguable, is in keeping with the difference between Hugo and Dickens as writers, not to mention the distinction between musicals and plays as theatrical forms.
While facts and psychological nuances are lost and even the plot is often relegated to a program synopsis, the thematic spirit of the original is preserved. Sequence after sequence speaks of Hugo's compassion for society's outcasts and his faith in God's offer of redemption. When the poor Fantine is reduced to "making money in her sleep," her downtrodden fellow prostitutes are apotheosized in golden light as their predatory clients circle in menacing shadows.
When the story's action moves from the provinces to Paris, two hulking wooden piles of domestic bric-a-brac converge to form an abstract representation of a mean slum, bordered on every side by the shuttered windows of a city coldly shunning its poor. In a subsequent and dazzling transition, the towers tilt to form an enormous barricade. Later still, the barricade twirls in mournful silence to become a charnel house -"Guernica" re-imagined as a Dada sculpture - crammed with the splayed corpses of a revolution that failed.
Except for that uprising's red flag, Mr. Napier's designs, all encased in a dark, beclouded prison of a proscenium, are drained of color. "Les Miserables' ' may be lavish, but its palette, like its noblest characters, is down-to-earth - dirty browns and cobblestone grays, streaked by Mr. Hersey with the smoky light that filters down to the bottom of the economic heap.
The proletarian simplicity of the design's style masks an incredible amount of theatrical sophistication. In one three-dimensional zoom-lens effect, Valjean's resolution of a crisis of conscience is accompanied by the sudden materialization of the courtroom where the moral question raised in his song ("Who Am I?") must be answered in deed. "Les Miserables" eventually takes us from the stars where inspector Javert sets his metaphysical perorations to the gurgling sewers inhabited by the parasitic innkeeper, Thenardier - and in one instance even simulates a character's suicidal fall through much of that height.
Mr. Schonberg's profligately melodious score, sumptuously orchestrated by John Cameron to straddle the eras of harpsichord and synthesizer, mixes madrigals with rock and evokes composers as diverse as Bizet (for the laborers) and Weill (for their exploiters). Motifs are recycled for ironic effect throughout, allowing the story's casualties to haunt the grief-stricken survivors long after their deaths. The resourceful lyrics - written by the one-time London drama critics Herbert Kretzmer and James Fenton, from the French of Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel - can be as sentimental as Hugo in translation.
Yet the libretto has been sharpened since London, and it is the edginess of the cleverest verses that prevents the Thenardiers' oom-pah-pah number, "Master of the House," from sliding into "Oliver!"
It's New York's good fortune that Mr. Wilkinson has traveled here with his commanding London performance as Valjean intact. An actor of pugilistic figure and dynamic voice, he is the heroic everyman the show demands at its heart - convincingly brawny, Christlike without being cloying, enraged by injustice, paternal with children. Mr. Wilkinson anchors the show from his first solo, in which he runs away from his identity as paroled prisoner 20601 with a vengeance that burns his will into the inky void around him. He is symbiotically matched by Mr. Mann's forceful Javert, who at first acts with his sneering lower lip but soon gains shading in the soliloquy that passionately describes the authoritarian moral code driving him to stalk the hero obsessively for 17 years.
Though uniformly gifted as singers, the American supporting cast does not act with the consistency of its West End predecessors. Randy Graff delivers Fantine's go-for-the-throat "I Dreamed a Dream" like a Broadway belter handed a show-stopper rather than a pathetic woman in ruins. David Bryant, as Marius, brings fervor to a touching hymn to dead comrades ("Empty Chairs at Empty Tables"), but not before he's proved a narcissistic romantic lead. Jennifer Butt plays the funny but cruel Mme. Thenardier as if she were the toothlessly clownish orphanage matron of "Annie."
Other roles fare better. Frances Ruffelle, the production's second London emigree, is stunning as the bedraggled Eponine: She's an angel with a dirty face and an unrelenting rock balladeer's voice. Leo Burmester's moldy-looking Thenardier really metamorphoses into the vicious, dog-eat-dog social carnivore his lyrics claim him to be. Judy Kuhn's lovely Cosette and Michael Maguire's noble rebel, Enjolras, are also first-rate. Donna Vivino, the young Cosette, and Braden Danner, the urchin Gavroche, tower over most child actors, however diminutively.
That "Les Miserables" easily overrides its lesser performers, candied romantic tableaux and early Act II languors is a testament to the ingenuity of the entire construction. This show isn't about individuals, or even the ensemble, so much as about how actors and music and staging meld with each other and with the soul of its source. The transfiguration is so complete that by evening's end, the company need simply march forward from the stage's black depths into a hazy orange dawn to summon up Hugo's unflagging faith in tomorrow's better world. The stirring sentiments belong to hallowed 19th-century literature, to be sure, but the fresh charge generated by this "Miserables" has everything to do with the electrifying showmanship of the 20th-century musical. Fraternite
By Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo; adapted and directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird; music by Mr. Schonberg; lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; original French text by Mr. Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel; additional material by James Fenton; orchestral score by John Cameron; musical supervision and direction by Robert Billig; sound by Andrew Bruce/Autograph; executive producers, Martin McCallum and Richard Jay-Alexander; designed by John Napier; lighting by David Hersey; costumes by Andreane Neofitou.
Email us your experiences & a copy of your ticket stub (optional) & we will post them here
Please add a bookmark so you can find us easily when you need tickets
Call 732-280-3434 today for the best tickets available:
Les Miserables tickets Les Miserables Broadway Theatre tickets