The show that helped repopularize musical theater as blockbuster spectacle has since been so parodied it's almost a parody of itself. And yet, undeniably, it still works, stirring audiences for 20 years and counting.
For a period generally categorized as greedy, vulgar and shallow, the 1980s sure didn’t shrink from exhibitions of big blustery sentiment. Even before the competing power ballads of Celine, Mariah and Whitney started choking the airwaves at the close of the decade, “Les Miserables” had already embraced shameless emotional exorbitance. The pop opera milked tears with the indefatigability of the smoke machines that kept its stage drenched in soupy atmosphere. The show that helped repopularize musical theater as blockbuster spectacle has since been so parodied it’s almost a parody of itself. And yet, undeniably, it still works, stirring audiences for 20 years and counting.By rights, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s sung-through musical should be a dinosaur, its straight face and clenched fists rendered cheesily unfashionable in the age of irony. It sets the same melodious handful of chord progressions to shuffle mode and simplifies Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel about love and war, mercy and redemption in post-Revolution France into an unrelenting series of emotional crescendos seasoned with fuzzy politics and philosophy. But just try to remain unmoved when plucky urchin Eponine sings of her unrequited love in “On My Own,” when unjustly persecuted fugitive Jean Valjean begs God to spare the life of his ward’s young sweetheart in “Bring Him Home,” as students lead the workers to insurrection in “Do You Hear the People Sing?” or when all the narrative and musical themes of the first act are rousingly woven together in the galvanic “One Day More.” This is a show of inflamed passions — romance, revolution and personal obsession. And even if it does stint on subtlety, it’s hard to resist the sweeping saga’s pull when its creatives have clearly brought such passionate conviction to the telling. Back on Broadway only 3½ years after the close of a 16-year run, it’s as if “Les Miz” never went away. Cameron Mackintosh’s landmark production has been rethought only in a marginal reduction from its original scale and a slight tightening (it’s down to under three hours, resulting in an occasionally rushed feel). Co-directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn’s propulsive, turntable-driven staging; John Napier’s stylized design, with its chiaroscuro sobriety violated only by the vivid color slash of a red flag; and David Hersey’s spectral lighting remain largely unchanged from memory. (The formation of the barricades is still an image of grandly imagined theatricality.) The surprise factor in this hasty revival is the top-tier cast. Without the brief absence, it’s inconceivable this longtime Broadway fixture could have attracted such A talent. Chief among them is Alexander Gemignani, making a head-spinning switch from his steely turn as the odious Beadle in “Sweeney Todd” to Christ-like prisoner 24601, Valjean. The show’s clunky prologue — Valjean is paroled after 19 years on a chain gang for lifting a loaf of bread, suffers the stigma of the ex-con as a free man, repays the charity of a bishop by robbing him and then is morally transformed by the cleric’s forgiveness — offers a lot for any actor to process. But Gemignani recovers to build a robustly defined character, providing a strong focus in the sprawling, populous plot. He acts the role with urgency, compassion and the circumspect nature of a man constantly looking over his shoulder. And he more than meets the part’s vocal demands, singing both with gravitas and aching sweetness, especially in the introspective “Who Am I?” and tender, near-falsetto prayer “Bring Him Home.” While Norm Lewis doesn’t have quite so assured a handle on the complexities of Javert, Valjean’s nemesis, he steadily gains momentum and authority as the driven cop and his silken voice is in fine form. Lewis’ powerful delivery of “Stars” makes it a first-act showstopper. Unlike her guileless, open-hearted Olive in “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” Celia Keenan-Bolger’s touching Eponine attempts to mask her bruised softness beneath a combative front. Her plaintive declaration of feeling in “On My Own” is another emotional high point. Enlisted from the national tour, Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs bring dulcet voices and unguarded sincerity to their roles as young lovers Cosette and Marius, the meek who inherit the earth in Hugo’s hopeful new dawn. In particular, Jacobs’ seeming obliviousness to his boy-band good looks makes him a disarming romantic lead. A fine Fabrizio in “The Light in the Piazza,” the golden-voiced Aaron Lazar impresses as Enjolras, his Roman profile and imposing presence making him a persuasive leader of the ill-fated uprising. As opportunistic vulgarian Thenardier and his wife, Gary Beach and Jenny Galloway are crowd-pleasing villains. Beach could bring more clarity to the amusing lyrics of “Master of the House,” and he neglects to nourish the role’s sinisterness, but his sharply honed vaudevillian comic skills are much in evidence. The one casting choice likely to cause consternation among diehard “Les Miz” devotees is Daphne Rubin-Vega as Fantine. Her interpretation of the doomed waif as a broken child, possessed by death well before she succumbs, offers a less routine approach than many of her castmates. But Rubin-Vega’s raspy vocals seem ill suited and too contemporary for her killer first-act number “I Dreamed a Dream” (especially for anyone attached to Patti LuPone’s full-bodied version in the original London cast recording), underselling the show’s first major assault on the tear ducts. Of all the trans-Atlantic musical juggernauts that colonized Broadway in the 1980s, “Les Miserables” remains arguably the most entertaining. Sure, it’s overwrought. But it’s less lead-footed than “The Phantom of the Opera,” with more hooks than “Miss Saigon” and none of the cloying poetic whimsy of “Cats.” “A Chorus Line” similarly returned to Broadway this season in a staging faithful to the original, but “Les Miz’s” brief departure doesn’t invite the same nostalgic welcome home. Yet the show’s fans could do a lot worse than this sturdy production.