NEW YORK – The barricades have once again gone up on Broadway. Are they worth dropping everything and joining this time?
The answer is a resounding “Oui!” Bring your flag.
The well-travelled “Les Miserables” has rolled into town for its third bite at the Broadway apple – not to mention fresh off a celebrated 2012 film – but there’s nothing tiresome about its gloomy, aching heartbeat.
Directed this time by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with new orchestrations, stagecraft and costumes, this terrific “Les Miserables” opened Sunday at the Imperial Theatre, capping a national tour that began in 2010.
It’s beautifully sung and acted – Ramin Karimloo, Will Swenson, Caissie Levy and Nikki M. James as leads can do no wrong – and the clever sets, superb lighting and moving projections highlight a creative team fully embracing Victor Hugo’s epic novel about good and evil, revolution and romance, in 19th-century France.
It boasts music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Producer Cameron Mackintosh was sold on reviving the show after learning that set designer Matt Kinley was inspired by the paintings of Hugo, which are often brooding, eerie and romantic.
His images of Paris infuse the production – augmented by enough fog to host a heavy metal festival – and, together with golden beams of lighting by Paule Constable, leave the actors looking at bit like they’re in paintings themselves.
Projections by Fifty-Nine Productions are subtle until brilliant, especially the plunge into the sewers in Act 2. There is no massive spinning turntable on the stage, as in previous incarnations, but it isn’t missed.
Karimloo stars as Jean Valjean, the former prisoner No. 24601 who is the moral centre of Hugo’s historical tale. Karimloo, a Mackintosh favourite in London, makes a tremendous Broadway debut, starting out as a feral, muscular animal out of chains and leaving an unsteady old man in grace. His falsetto sung prayer “Bring Him Home” is sublime.
Swenson is ramrod straight as Inspector Javert, a man so in control of his emotions that even his speech is hyper-punctuated. Unrelenting and stingy with mercy, Swenson has the slightly unhinged quality of a bloodhound, a performance that explains why he must take desperate measures when doubt creeps in.
Levy as the doomed Fantine is lovely and her “I Dreamed a Dream” mixes rage and pitifulness into a tour de force. Samantha Hill as Cosette, James as Eponine and Andy Mientus as Marius are glorious in their romantic triangle. Even the little kids in the cast are cool.
With so many scenes veering toward the overwrought, the directors have wisely offered comedic moments – a masterful “Master Of The House” led by the ribald Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle – and ones to reflect quietly, as in the simple, ghostly, candlelit Marius-sung “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
There is a cinematic quality to this production – though it predates the Tom Hooper film version – that includes fast scene changes and even the title superimposed on the back wall, in case we needed reassurance which show was on. The barricades are smartly backlit and the action spills into the theatre’s box seats.
The hits keep coming, and thanks to reprises, keep coming: “I Dreamed a Dream,” ”Do You Hear the People Sing?“ and ”One Day More.“ The melodies are as grandiose as the story. And here, the voices and look of the show wonderfully match. Bring your flag.