It’s a smash all right. Magnificent stagecraft is joined to an uplifting theme of heroic human commitment and to stirring music in “Les Miserables,” the touted London import which arrived at the Broadway Theater for what will be a stay of several years.
The show’s narrative propulsion, sensual scenery, brilliantly organized staging and outstanding singing give the $47.50 publics its money’s worth and then some. If “Les Miz” isn’t completely successful in pulling the audience emotionally into the sweepingly romantic Victor Hugo yarn and its fist shaking assault on social injustice, few will complain in view of its achievements, which are major.
The “Nicholas Nickleby” team headed by co-directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird once more has delivered a show brimming with crafty showmanship. This time it’s early 19th century France, rather than Victorian Britain, that comes alive on the stage as Hugo’s monumental novel is distilled and intensified into a mostly enthralling stage spectacle.
The all-sung show is profligate in its supply of music by French collaborators Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. The songs for the principal characters, which include several irresistible melodic ballads, are linked by recitative and constant underscoring which contribute to the impression of heading forward movement. That effect is even more a result of the stagewise use of designer John Napier’s huge revolve, which allows for instant scene changes and film-like story progression.
Nunn and Caird and the designers pile eye-popping effect on effect in their presentation of the archetypal story of the ex-convict Jean Valjean and his lifelong pursuit by the obsessed cop Javert. It’s an exceptional instance of stage technology enhancing rather that distracting from the human story material.
That Said, it has to be noted that “Les Miserables’ has its slow spots and occasional touches of overly insistent pathos-begging. Hugo’s championing of society’s outcasts, very similar in feeling to Dickens, gets basically short shrift as the creators choose to concentrate on the spectacle and the romantic sentiment. Every show manipulates the audience in its own way, and this one is less subtle about it than was “Nickleby.” But that’s a quibble that won’t slow down this boxoffice cannonball to which the public is certain to respond with enthusiasm.
On the most basic level of boiling down a massive novel with scores of important characters and a profusion of incident, the show is a marvel of skillful adaptation. The French authors merit an honorary degree in narrative surgery for their abridgement, which loses nothing crucial in the plot, and for the clarity of the storytelling.
The book has not been a hit since 1862 by accident, of course. The saintly, selfless Valjean, who devotes his life to good works after being shown the true path by a kindly bishop, is one of literature’s immortal characters. His conflict with and eventual moral defeat of the fanatically righteous Javert is a ditto situation.
Beneath this central story foundation are the weepily affecting stories of the unwed mother-turned prostitute Fantine, Valjean’s rescue of her daughter from the clutches of a villainous couple and the subsequent love match between the daughter and an idealistic student radical.
The Boublil-Schonberg score is chockablock with tunes that hit the audience where it lives. It may not be sophisticated or technically innovative music, but it’s smashingly theatrical. Less effective are the Herbert Kretzmer lyrics which dip too frequently into June-moon land.
The casting is triumphant, The creators have found big-voiced singers who can act, most particularly Colm Wilkinson who plays and sings the Jean Valjean role with virile authority and confidence. His plangent tenor voice is a wonderful dramatic instrument. When it’s time to replace him it won’t be easy.
As the pathetic mother who dies without a reunion with the child she was forced to give up, Randy Graff puts over one of the show’s best songs, “I Dreamed A Dream,” with commendable poignance. The lovelorn streetwalker Eponine (slightly laundered from Hugo) gets a thrilling performance from London cast original Frances Ruffelle, who earns a thunderous audience approval with her pop-voice treatment of “On My Own.” Look for a Tony nomination here, one of many the show will garner.
As the comical villainous couple, Leo Burmester and Jennifer Butt get to lead an outstanding choral comedy number, “Master Of The House,” and score again as interlopers at a second act society soiree. Judy Kuhn and David Bryant sing well as the young lovers.
Terrence Mann has the right vocal intensity as the intimidation Javert and his prelude-to-suicide solo is a dramatic high point. But he overdoes the curled lip and sneer. He’s too clearly no match for Valjean.
The show’s always a visual stunner. Napier, the new Merlin of legit designers, makes thrilling use of a pair of towers which dip, slide and interlock to form the student rebels’ barricade. Valjean’s escape into the Paris sewer, with typically wow lighting by David Hersey, gets a hand by itself.
As the most exciting musical drama to hit Broadway in some years, as a visually and musically stirring spectacle, as a stellar instance of highly refined staging skill, “Les Miserables” will be the hit it deserves to be. It’s a shade too calculated and self-conscious to rank at the very top, but the insistent tugging at the heartstrings will not hurt its popularity with a public that wants the theater to provide a unique experience, which this show emphatically does.