Cameron Mackintosh, who brought us Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, is presenting a Broadway revival of his long running smash hit musical Les Miserables just over three years after the show, which is still running in London, closed a successful run here in May of 2003. Directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, the same team that directed and adapted the first, this new version with fresh orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke has been slightly scaled down for the smaller stage and boasts an entirely new cast of excellent singers, but the evening feels like a vibrant carbon copy of the masterful original without its stirring heart.
The engrossing tale with its multiple plots is based on the 19th century French classic novel by Victor Hugo that resonates with a clarity of vision “an essential spark, an element of the divine; …which goodness can preserve,” that Hugo believes is indestructible and inherent in every human soul. His sweeping story that cuts across a wide swath of characters from many social levels has been smartly cut down by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel so that it unfolds with intense momentum. The saga follows Jean Valjean (Alexander Gemignani), a man of overwhelmingly high morals, who has been imprisoned 20 years in a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed a child.
Upon his release from prison Valjean becomes a wealthy esteemed citizen, but is nonetheless diligently stalked by the self justified Inspector Javert (Norm Lewis) for breaking his parole. Valjean encounters a compassionate Bishop (James- Chip Leonard) , who influences him toward goodness, and he takes over the care of Cosette (Ali Ewoldt), the daughter of a dying prostitute Fantine (Daphne Rubin-Vega), raising her as his own. Cosette falls in love with Marius (Adam Jacobs) a dashing revolutionary in the failed student revolt.
The operatic musical began life as a French pop-opera album and, indeed, the soaring music by Claude-Michel Schonberg with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer lifts the evening into another dimension making it easy to understand just why Les Miserables has been so popular. There is nothing little about this show, and the overflowing staging brilliantly mirrors that largeness making effective use of an inventive set design by John Napier that has a revolving center allowing for the many scenes to easily evolve from one to the next with overlapping progressions that often keeps much of the cast on stage at the same time.
The entire cast is on stage as the first act ends with the rousing anthem “One More Day.” The unforgettable number is teeming with the voices and raw emotions of the characters we have just met, and all the evening’s elements come together in an overwhelming surge that is magnificent.
In the title role Gemignani hides behind his splendid voice and his Valjean fails to register with the necessary intensity to give his performance weight. He is lacking in the early scenes only feigning real emotion, and as a result his characterization fails to build. He does redeem himself beautifully in the ballad “Bring Him Home” – one of the highlights of the evening, but if only the entire performance possessed the same belief.
In the less complex role as Javert, Lewis does somewhat better, but he too is not forceful enough and their interactions remain vapid rather than compelling.
While some of the actors are unfortunately miscast, others lack passion and a couple overact outrageously, but they all sing handsomely. The unevenness of the performances, however, is what keeps this Les Miserables from becoming the emotionally moving extravaganza of the 1987 original and the evening although still powerful feels disappointingly gutless.
gordin & christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
Les Miserables opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre, 233 West 44th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues on November 9, 2006. For tickets call 212 239-6200 or visit the box office.