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Let me preface this by publicly admitting that I have never read Victor Hugo’s massive 1820 novel, nor have I seen Richard Boleslawski’s 1935 film (starring Fredric March and Charles Laughton) or any previous stage production, many of which were met by tepid reviews at best. (The show debuted on Broadway in 1987, running for sixteen years, then was revived briefly in 2006.) My introduction to the world of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, Cosette and Éponine was via Tom Hooper’s tedious, overblown, yet Oscar-nominated 2012 movie. So my expectations were pretty low when I entered the Imperial Theatre to see this reboot of Cameron Mackintosh’s Broadway phenomenon. I can now understand the mania that surrounds the lavish musical, though I’m not quite part of the cult yet. Les Miz follows the endless pain and anguish of Valjean (Ramin Karimloo), prisoner 24601, who is released after spending nineteen years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread to help feed his sister’s family. As he tries to make something of his life in early-nineteenth-century France, he is hounded by Javert (Will Swenson), who wants him back behind bars. Over the course of seventeen years (1815-32), Valjean meets Fantine (Caissie Levy), a young woman forced into prostitution; raises her daughter, Cosette (Angeli Negron or McKayla Twiggs as a girl, Samantha Hill as a grown woman); and allies himself with a group of revolutionaries that include Éponine (Nikki M. James), Marius (Andy Mientus), Enjoiras (Kyle Scatliffe), and the brave boy Gavroche (Joshua Colley or Gaten Matarazzo).
Directors James Powell and Laurence Connor have subdued the staging somewhat while including fabulous projections that enhance several scenes, replacing the famed rotating set with a series of dark, wood-based constructions (designed by Matt Kinley) that put the performers front and center. Indeed, as each one takes the stage, the audience cheers the character, who then breaks into familiar songs under the spotlight. There’s more a feeling of competition than usual with musical revivals as the crowd waits with bated breath to see how this new cast handles the beloved score, written by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. (The book is by Alain Boublil.) Karimloo makes an impressive Broadway debut as Valjean, establishing his admirable chops with his early “Soliloquy” and later nailing the epic “Bring Him Home.” (The role is played by Aaron Walpole or Nathaniel Hackmann on Thursdays so Karimloo can rest his voice.) Swenson (Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Hair) plays Javert with just the right boldness, making him a great foil for Valjean. Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle have the requisite amount of fun as the Thénardiers, chewing the scenery with “Master of the House,” Tony winner Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon) gives a heartfelt performance as Éponine, leading the second act with a stirring “On My Own,” and Andy Mientus offers up a fine “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” as Marius. Is this Les Misérables still over the top, at times bombastic, with treacly religious sentiment and sappy melodrama? Absolutely. But that’s also part of the charm, which it has in abundance.