Monday, March 24, 2014

Masters of the House: Les Mis Returns to Broadway

Posted By on Mon, Mar 24, 2014 at 1:33 PM

les miserables broadway revival 2014 will swenson ramin karimloo
  • Michael Le Poer Trench
Here's a minor detail that nevertheless speaks to why this new revival of Les Misérables is such an extraordinary production: during the "Master of the House" number, as the Thénardiers vamp about "filling the sausages with this and that," a blind man's canary is swiped and stuffed in a meat grinder; as the poor birdie dies, a puff of feathers shoots up in a macabre punch line. Very small, but indicative of the show as a whole: it’s not just the size of the canvas; it’s that it paints in the corners. There's a sense here of an entire production team working at the peak of its ability, using all the tools at its disposal, from the central appeal of a gifted actors performing strong material to modern tricks of lighting and sound design. There's a grandeur that's literally awesome.

The prospect of another Les Mis has been easily dismissed by skeptics as the work of producers just coasting off the broader name recognition following the 2012 movie. This is already the third time the show has been on Broadway since 2003, and the last revival demonstrated the strain of diminishing returns. But even audience veterans may find themselves responding in a new way; the show’s new staging makes choices that seem so obvious in retrospect—like the use of candles in a few Act II numbers—that it’s surprising how little has been carried over from previous versions.

Turntable aside, the lasting images I have of the original production are of its use of shadows, which obfuscated some of the plot points and coincidences that play into Victor Hugo’s epic narrative of love and redemption. If nothing else, the film’s stars and staging made it easier to follow, even as it felt overall like a collection of isolated numbers from an elaborate cast album. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell here give the show both clarity and momentum, pivoting it from bawdy humor to spectacle or quiet contemplation. Moments are given the space they need to resonate, and every death hurts.

As you'd expect from this kind of budget, the show is a technical marvel. Between the subtle beauty of the backdrops (based on Hugo’s own paintings) and Matt Kinley’s sets, there is an uncanny sense that you could walk backstage and emerge in 19th-century France. No details have been overlooked, but it doesn’t feel busy or overstuffed. Really, it’s a marvel how what could have been a lumbering monster feels fleet and nimble. It might feel easy to ignore another iteration of Les Misérables (through at least September), especially given the cost of a ticket relative to the DVD, but this has the feel of one-stop shopping—the culmination of everything you might go to the theater for, if you can’t go often. Here is lewd farce and battles of massive scope. Here is Ramin Karimloo’s titanic performance as Jean Valjean, and his stunning rendition of “Bring Him Home,” a number that represents theater at both its biggest and its most intimate.

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