When I mentioned to a friend that “Les Miserables” was back on Broadway, he said, “I didn’t know it had closed.” In a way his response didn’t surprise me, as the musical has only been off the boards (or should I say off the revolving turntable?) for three and a half years. It makes one wonder, however, if there was some groundswell among the fans to make producer Cameron Mackintosh decide to bring it back after so short a time. There are presumably many who think of “Les Miz” (as it is commonly called) as a moveable fixture (it did change theaters during its initial run). It opened on March 12, 1987, and closed on May 18, 2003, after amassing a total of 6,680 performances, making it the third longest running show in Broadway history. It is only surpassed for longevity by “Cats,” which opened in 1982, and closed 18 years later after 7,485 performances and by “The Phantom of the Opera,” which opened in 1988 and has thus far chalked up 7,845 performances with no end in sight.
This hugely successful musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel is evidently saying/singing something to a lot of people. Be assured that this darkly vivid 19th century operatically-essayed dramatic tableaux of post-Revolution France, courtesy of composers Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg and director Trevor Nunn, has only been modestly tampered with (about 15 minutes shorter than before) and remains just as convoluted and as concisely constructed as ever. The good news is that Alexander Gemignani is giving a dramatically convincing and vocally impressive performance as the fugitive Jean Valjean and that Norm Lewis puts a uniquely human touch to the marvelously paranoid mission-obsessed police inspector Javert.
The supporting cast is mostly up to the demands of the often angst-driven arias. Not being a real fan of “Les Miz,” it is, however, easy to see how the public continues to respond to the impassioned tenacity of the music and the turbulence of the times. No matter how familiar the score is to you, it is hard to resist the rousing anthem “Do You Hear the People Sing”; Valjean’s heartbreaking “Who Am I”; the romantic declaration “A Heart Full of Love,” as expressed by Cosette (Ali Ewoldt), Marius (Adam Jacobs), and Eponine (Celia Keenan-Bolger); and the stimulating “One Day More,” sung by the company at the close of Act I. Aaron Lazar stands out as a notably dashing and formidable Enjolras, the leader of the workers and students uprising. Daphne Rubin Vega, as the ill-fated Fantine, conveys the role’s inherent poignancy, but unfortunately her small raspy voice isn’t up to the demands of “I Dreamed a Dream.”
That “Les Miz” abstains from melodramatic excess is largely responsible for our willingness to be moved emotionally. Parody only rears its grotesque shape in the form of Thenardier (Gary Beach) and Madame Thenardier (Jenny Galloway), as the mercenary innkeeper and his wife. The path and moral transformation of ex-convict Jean Valjean as he is relentlessly pursued over the years by his nemesis, Javert, all the while protecting and bringing hope to those he loves, is fraught with despair and danger. But through all of “Les Miz,” we see the virtue of his irrepressible need for redemption and his unwavering resolve to live a better life. 3 stars.
“Les Miserables,” Broadhurst Theatre, 235 West 44th Street, $36.25 to $111.25. 212-239-6200.
Last season British director John Doyle’s brilliantly conceived re-staging of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece “Sweeney Todd” was the recipient of accolades and the coveted Tony Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical. Its primary conceit was having the actors address the score by playing their own instruments. That lightning strikes twice for Doyle is evident in his also similarly approached actors-with-instruments-in-hand staging of Sondheim’s 1970s breakthrough musical, “Company.” It was inevitable that this production, which premiered this past spring at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park and garnered rave reviews, head for Broadway.
In contrast to Doyle’s vision for “Sweeney Todd” as a show performed by inmates of an insane asylum, “Company” is less eccentric but is as cleverly re-considered. Many of the performers are making their Broadway debuts and all seem more than prepared in their various musical disciplines.
This is not the first Broadway revival of the controversial musical that many theatergoers liked to dislike during its original run. A revival in 1995 by the Roundabout Theater Company did have many of these same people admitting that their feelings about Sondheim’s brittle and biting score and George Furth’s assertively bitchy book were subject to change, more specifically subject to a little less hostility. In its latest incarnation, “Company” continues to resonate with a musical savvy that is uniquely Sondheim. But perhaps it is simply the book that essentially sours the experience. Yet, isn’t that exactly the taste that we are meant to savor?
Gearing the plot to the sensibilities of so-called sophisticated New Yorkers, Furth, who also collaborated with Sondheim on “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Getting Away With Murder,” was clearly fixated on the denigration of marriage, specifically the female half of it. The musical is still witty and caustic, but also more conspicuously nasty toward that venerable institution. Perhaps Furth’s idea of watching a despairing 35-year-old bachelor in pursuit of his own happiness while remaining a lap dog for his closest friends — five unhappily married couples — doesn’t project optimism, but it’s a deft device and recognizable.
Raul Esparza, the dynamic young actor who made great impressions in such not such great shows as “Taboo” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” plays Robert, whose tainted attitudes about attachment and commitment to women, and specifically to his three concurrent girlfriends, appear the direct result of observing his friends’ disintegrating relationships. Esparza delivers the insecurities of his character with a brio and confidence that also drives his two big songs, “Marry Me a Little” (not in the original show, but restored here as it was in the earlier revival) and “Being Alive.” Pivotal as he is, Robert often stands at the outside of his friends’ lives as they are revealed in a series of skittish skits.
Sardonic in the extreme, each skit depicts these adults in their various states of disharmony. But what these skits really depict is the unequivocal substance of 15 almost equally great songs. If Doyle’s direction does anything, it puts a resolutely semi-detached element into the show’s structure without neutralizing its integrated moments. There is enough theatrical imagination at work and an excellent enough company on hand to create an exhilarating experience.
A rather zaftig Heather Laws, who also comes equipped with a French horn, trumpet, and flute, comes the closest to stopping the show in its tracks with her motor-mouthed rendition of “Getting Married Today.” The women in Robert’s life are, as to be expected, amusingly diverse. Between fiddling or tooting on something, the charmingly sexy Angel Desai, as Marta, sashays around in her mini-skirt and gets to pelt out the rapidly-fired tongue-twister “Another Hundred People.” Elizabeth Stanley demonstrates her proficiency on the oboe, tuba, and alto sax, as April, the ditsy airline stewardess who sings “Barcelona.” And exceptionally pretty redhead Kelly Jeanne Grant, as Kathy, make a good case for leaving New York and heading back to old Cape Cod. Each wielding a saxophone, Desai, Stanley, and Grant make the concerted “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” a musical highlight.
Among the couples, Larry (Keith Buterbaugh) and Sarah (Kristin Huffman) make their dieting and cheating, going on and off the wagon, karate chopping demonstration consistently combative. The latter is humorously staged with each combatant standing far apart from each other. Peter (Matt Castle) and Susan (Amy Justman) delightfully discover the joy of being married only after their divorce. It’s not quite such a bed of roses for David (Fred Rose) when Jenny (Leenya Rideout) gets potted and loses her inhibitions. Barbara Walsh hones the bitter side of thrice-married Joanne to a fine edge and earned the approval she got for her venomously delivered “Ladies Who Lunch.” But how her decent tolerant husband, Larry (Bruce Sabath), could stand her for a minute defies belief.
The exuberantly staged “Side By Side” features the company singing and parading with their instruments in tow and is quite as exhilarating as anything professor Harold Hill might have conjured up for his 76 trombonists. Set designer David Gallo hasn’t employed much decor other than different sized strategically placed Plexiglas cubes around the stage. A tall Greek column at center stage, and a piano and plenty of chairs for the performers dressed in concert-style black (by costume designer Ann Hould-Ward) complete the picture, all enhanced by Thomas C. Hase’s superb lighting.
In its favor, “Company” does not appear dated despite its noticeably 1970s style smirks and smarts and flagrant pessimism. Despite his clever approach, Doyle keeps faith with the musical’s nervous, schematic format. Even so we still cringe a little at the abrasive theme and mostly unsympathetic characters. Yet there is no denying it is “The Little Things You Do Together,” that make this musical undeniable special and unique. 3 stars.
“Company,” Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 W.est 47th Street. $36.25 to $111.25. 212-239-6200.
The key: 4 stars, Don’t miss; 3 stars, You won’t feel cheated; 2 stars, Maybe you should have stayed home; 1 star, Don’t blame us.