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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Now, this ground breaking operatic musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's classic novel is back in town. And it's a humdinger.
Even if you saw it before, or caught the 2012 film version, you won't want to miss the exciting new production of the show fondly nicknamed "Les Miz" by the fans who have made it a colossal world-wide hit. The new stage concept was created to celebrate the show's 25th Anniversary and intended to go on tour after its launch at the Royal Shakespeare Company where it all started.
Don't be fooled by this being tagged as a touring production. This is not a cheaper, scaled down road show but a stunning, innovative spectacle. In fact, the really new-new thing about this innovative presentation is the brilliant stagecraft that takes full advantage of modern technology to give the highly emotional score and melodramatic but heart stirring story a cinematic sweep — but without losing the special quality that live theater so special.
More about the astonishing new visuals later. But first some comments about the New York cast which also validates that "new and exciting" label. The acting and singing are sublime all around, and that includes the youngest members of the ensemble.
Ramin Karimloo, who's new to New York but a London stage star, is a thrilling Jean Valjean. He fully inhabits this complex character — from his first appearance as a prisoner being paroled after nineteen years at hard labor for stealing bread for his starving sister and her family, to the heroic rescue of his beloved adopted daughter's lover and the only survivor of the disastrous student revolt, to his reunion with the happy couple. He ages believably with each magnificently sung aria.
Karimloo's remarkable performance is matched by Will Swenson's portrays of Valjean's nemesis, the obsessive Javert. His acting and singing has never been better. The key female roles are also extremely well done by Cassie Levy and Nikki James (the Tony winning Nabalungi of The Book of Mormon) as the ill-fated Fantine and Eponine. Both manage to die with fervently sung arias.
Also aptly cast and outstanding are Samantha Hill and Andy Mientus as the young lovers. Kyle Scatliffee makes a strong impression as the rebellion's leader Enjolras. Keila Settle and Cliff Saunders handle the requirement for Madame and Monsieur Thernardier to be horrible but also hilarious with aplomb.
A special bravo to Joshua Colley for his irresistibly endearing young Gavroche. Unlike a lot of young singers his vocal delivery is clear and he has real presence, capturing our hearts every time he shows up on stage. According to a colleague who attended an evening performance, Gaten Matarazzo who alternates with him is just as winning.
As for the new design concept, gone is the turntable — and good riddance since it's become a much parodied cliche. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell now have Matt Kinley's striking scenic images to move the cast through the multiple plot complications. Kinley was inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. Yes, that the same Hugo who wrote the novel but is less known his talents as a visual artist, not because they lacked merit but because Hugo purposely kept his paintings from public view because he feared they would draw attention away from his literary output. A needless case of a creative person's insecurity since Hugo's novels are still widely read today.
The wizardly display of scenic designs, slides and moving projections as realized by Fifty-Nine Productions, reflect Hugo the painter's incorporating charcoal, ink and soot, and sometimes coffee into his canvases (For more about his paintings see http://bittleston.com/artists/victor_hugo/). The dark tone of this art technique works beautifully to evoke the show's dark post-revolutionary aura, particularly scene on the barricades with its dismal ending. The atmospheric stage images are enhanced by Paule Constable's lighting. And to underscore my comment that this being a touring company has nothing to do with penny pinching, we have Andreane Neofitour's eye-popping costumes, for both the dark parts and the colorful wedding scene towards the end.
While the size of the band (17 musicians) is in keeping with less populated orchestra pits, the new orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker serve the musicians well. And Mick Potter's sound design mercifully downplays the often hollow sound of over amplified shows.
No matter how familiar the pop-eratic score and story, the three hours are a case of more is indeed more satisfying than the less exemplified by many 90-minute shows. And given the fresh staging and excellence of the cast, you won't be sorry to buy a ticket to hear these people sing once again, and thrillingly so.