The new 25th Anniversary production of Les Miserables is spectacular beyond all reasonable expectations.
Long held - and often documented - as my favorite musical, I have a special bond with Les Miserables that dates back to the Young Mattopia Jones Chronicles' New York City episodes. That original production, first seen at the Broadway Theatre, was life altering. Its staging, revolving around an elegantly simple carousel, was revolutionary, breathtaking and yet Spartan. In fact, it was almost 21 years ago to the day that I first saw Les Mis.
Now, along with some updated musical arrangements, the entire staging has been overhauled under the auspices of Matt Kinley (go, Matt, go!). Even I am shocked to write that this new production has quickly entrenched itself as my favorite.
Let's back up and revisit the original production. Its initial ran spanned from 12 March 1987 through 18 May 2003. I saw it at both the Broadway and Imperial theatres. Then it reopened at the Broadhurst on 9 November 2006. I saw that production on 4 April 2007 and was disappointed, not only at the weak cast, even with Lea Salonga (the original Miss Saigon) as Eponine, but also in some of the minor tweaks the production sustained. That included a muted opening drum beat that was set against a Star Wars-like Les Miserables title animation. While it was billed as a triumphant return to Broadway with a reinvigorated production, it felt flat. Poor, poor casting choices will do that to any show.
With that production black eye still on my mind more than four years later, I didn't think much of the hype behind the new 25th Anniversary production. Sure, I had to see, I'd be there for it, but I didn't put much thought into what the new production might entail and I avoided all reviews and coverage in order to keep things as much of a surprise as possible.
In stark contrast to that muted drumbeat of the Broadhurst revival, this new production had me from the very robust opening drumbeat.
But even more dramatic was the revelation that Jean Valjean was very clearly sailing on a ship; a clever screen effect simulated ocean spray while the background formed depicted the ship's mast.
Wow! This was the revitalization I was anticipating with the revival.
The carousel staging: Gone. In its place is a much more robust staging with oodles more props and set pieces. Now the sides of the stage are brick tunnels, gates, doors, and balconies. The extra stagecraft allows for an incredible amount of intricate, interesting lighting and shadows; the more complex sets allow for my natural and sophisticated character interactions.
The immaculate score by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg sounds vital and urgent once again, buoyed by a spectacular cast led by Joe Tokarz (understudy to J. Mark McVey, who was performing with Marvin Hamlisch in Dallas) as Jean Valjean. His foil, Javert, is equally impressive thanks to Andrew Varela's vocals. Varela is almost too stiff, even for the uptight Javert, but he does noticeably loosen (at least for Javert) when he dons civilian attire at the barricade. A production is in good hands when even the little cast members sing to the rafters and Maya Jade Frank does just that as young Cosette.
To watch this extraordinary new production is to watch the rebirth of a masterpiece. It provides chills of excitement from the start right on through to the emotional conclusion. The opening drumbeat was robust, but it pales in comparison to the opening beat of the second act.
The best way to sum it up is this: The original production was extremely theatrical. This new one is downright cinematic.
If this in any way impacts the direction of the oft-rumored movie version, then the delays will have been worthwhile. Years ago the movie was to be directed by Bruce Beresford; now it's rumored to be under the direction of Tom Hooper (The King's Speech) with Anne Hathaway (Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland) in the running for the role of Fantine.
The cinematic aspects of this production emanate from the intricate lighting, staging, props, and sets. Then there's the background imagery. Prior to the show, the stage curtain is a dramatic, somber painting of a landscape with Les Miserables now shown in a handscript instead of the familiar serif font. That painting style moves to the rear wall of the stage, which projects that image of the ship mast, then moves to the smoke stacks of a factory and numerous other images that evoke a tremendous amount of atmosphere and further delineate the time and place. Indeed, the title cards are all gone. That simple, handwritten Les Miserables reappears after Jean Valjean accepts the priest's gifts and commits himself to a fresh start in a new world.
The goosebumps generated by all this magnificence reach their pinnacle during One Day More! The simplistic staging of the small band of revolutionaries, accompanied by Valjean and Cosette in the foreground, are replaced with a dynamic, awesome set piece that serves as the single best way to describe the exquisite recrafting of the entire show. Now, Valjean and Cosette sing from their house at stage left, the Thenardiers appear in a balcony stage right, and the expanded group of revolutionaries march to an aggressive version of the song, all set against a backdrop projected painting of a Parisian street. Then the street begins to animate, simulating forward motion in step with the marching students. It's awesome. It's cinematic. It perfectly captures the essence, the mood, the action.
Who did those paintings?
They're all based on the works of one Victor Hugo.
And so the production now is a seamless blending of music, literature, painting, theatre, and production design. In other words, now, more than ever, Les Miserables is a work of art.
At every turn, the new staging finds fantastic new ways to present the characters and the action. Previously, the dead bodies of Gavroche and Enjolras were both shown on the barricade, with the carousel stage rotating to show both sides of the makeshift defense. Now, with the revolving mechanism removed, those bodies are put in a cart, which is drawn around for the audience to view the tragic contents of the bed.
Then there's Turning, which has transformed from a simple staging of women tending to their household duties to a more eclectic assembly of women, some fashionably dressed, others more domestic, but all eulogizing their lost loved ones with a small candle placed on the stage floor. That scene seamlessly moves to Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, wherein Marius mourns his lost friends. Their ghosts take the place of the Turning women and each picks up a candle. Elegant. Purely elegant. A part of me misses the simpler presentation of Empty Chairs, but there's no debating the new take is so tastefully done.
There's another good word for this show, "tasteful." Excellent choices abound to such an extent that it's downright remarkable. Miraculous.
As would be expected, Master of the House is still a showstopper with refreshing raunchy humor from Shawna M. Hamic and Richard Vida, as is Fantine's I Dreamed a Dream, powerfully belted out by Betsy Morgan.
The audience response went beyond standard theatre buff enthusiasm. The standing ovation was ecstatic. What happened on stage at the Buell last night was something special. And the cast knew it.
As the curtain fell one last time, with the cast waving goodbye to the reciprocating audience, myself included, Tokarz and Varela gave each other an enthusiastic fist bump of success. It was a small gesture I observed firsthand. And it was perfectly emblematic of this rousing new production of an all-time favorite.
Author's Note: I'm pretty sure I got the cast names correct, but the program did not include any notes regarding cast substitutions.