The original Cameron Mackintosh/Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Miserables was no one's idea of a surefire popular success. It was an almost unrelievedly somber musical with rock-opera pretensions; even the stabs at humor seemed half-hearted in a relentless, dark evocation of Victor Hugo's sprawling narrative that mostly reveled in human misery and thwarted aspirations. Although the show eventually provided several memorable visual and spoken punchlines for Forbidden Broadway , it more importantly sounded a popular chord (much as the novel had on its fantastic level), running more than 16 years on Broadway, spawning countless tours, and making a pop icon-a brand!-of the girl Cosette.
So questions of whether or not it's too soon for a revival of a show that departed just three years ago seem to me to be moot; Les Miz has a universal message, people want to hear it, it's a counterweight-a pretty darned effective counterweight, if you ask me-to any of your pick of jukebox musicals.
The only question, then, is: has Mackintosh returned with a first-class revival of a show still fresh in the minds of many who will be taking their children and latest spouses to it? The answer is an unqualified yes.
Like the revival of A Chorus Line , which also returned this season, the new Les Miz offers a tracing-paper copy of the original; in this case, it appears to be, additionally, a slightly downsized replica for a smaller theater. Les Miz is for the most part an intimate musical, and so the impact is negligible, with the notable exception of the scenes at the student barricade, though oddly, those once-towering structures now seem as forlorn and raggle taggle as the real one no doubt were.
Unlke A Chorus Line , the casting of Les Miz is, with one unfortunate exception, unimpeachable, even if it fails to capture the thrill of the original. This is especially true for the Jean Valjean of Alexander Gemigniani: He brings the requisite stentorian vigor (and a beautiful voice) to the role of a good man hounded by his past, and if we did not carry the memory of Colm Wilkinson's soaring tenor, we would think Gemigniani (Broadway royalty, being the son of musical director non pareil Paul Gemignani) just about perfect,Norm Lewis, on the other hand, is quite equal to the memory of Terrence Mann as Inspector Javert, Valjean's obsessive pursuer, and there is something mildly but refreshingly shocking about having this character, more sympathetic here than in the novel, played by an African American actor. Gary Beach is perhaps broader than we'd like as Thenardier, more buffoon than sinister scavenger, but I can live with that.
I'd have thought Daphne Rubin-Vega* perfect casting as Fantine, but whatever has happened to her since taking Broadway by storm in Rent a decade ago, it hasn't been good for her voice, which is uncertain, let alone her acting, which is not up to the rest of the company's. None of her show stoppers stops the show.
The kids are all right, especially Brian D'Addario as spunky, doomed Gavroche (at the performance I saw) and the various Cosettes and Eponines sprinkled about the casts. Les Miz is a better than good show, and it's eminently well-served for a new audience.
* Ms Vega has since left the cast. In early March, Lea Salonga will take over the role of Fantine