When interviewing Andrea McArdle at 54 Below, I asked how she felt about the coming revival of Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Miserables. Her response was…WHY? After seeing the production last night I can say, to hear Ramin Karimloo sing “God on High” as a heartfelt prayer in its purest form is a heaven sent moment. Whenever Karimloo is on stage the show has a spark, then the rest of the show happens where the voices and acting are a mixed bag of bad “American Idol” and a high school of the performing arts production. Part of the problem is the tag teaming of two directors, Laurence Connor and James Powell. The show has an uneven feel and this could be why. Then there is the casting by Tara Rubin. The worst of it is Nikki M. James as Eponine who sings like a Muppet on steroids and Kyle Scatliffe as Enjolras, the leader of the rebellion, who is off key and uninspired. I have perfect pitch so when you put these two voices into the mix of the song, “One Day More,” which should build to a crescendo, it hangs in the air like chalk on a blackboard. I loved Ms. James earlier this year in Fetch Clay Make Man but in this she is out of her league. During intermission I was discussing the unevenness of the show and particularly these two performers when an audience member verbally attacked me for being prejudiced since both of these performers are African American. For some reason if the performer is not up to par, and is anything other than white it is deemed politically incorrect to point it out. As a critic, I feel it is wrong to overlook when a performance is bad, just because a person is of color. Colorblind casting does work but only when it shows talent, not some agenda pushing its decree.
Andy Mientus as Marius was cast due to his stint on “Smash” and does well on “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” but the rest of his performance falls flat and in the void. Caissie Levy’s Fantine seems like she is auditioning for “The Voice,” with her soft pop version of “I Dreamed a Dream.” Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle as the Thenardiers have been directed to a new level of crass. This production uses every version of what could be used as a phallic symbol and what that could demonstrate. In a word, gross. Settle does rise above the “dumb and dumber” direction and that in itself is a feat.
I did like Samantha Hill as Cosette who brings simplicity of voice and spirit to the role and Adam Monley as the Bishop who saves Valjean for God. The kids are also well cast.
The main ingredient missing is the innate obsessiveness of Javert. You never feel as if this is a man driven by his own inner beliefs. When he realizes how wrong he was, the only way out for him is suicide. Will Swenson sings the best I have seen him but, this is a show about how wrong he is and that is not what we get. When he sings the final “Soliloquy” the effects are more than the actual emotion. Having said that, what this show is missing is the heart and soul of Hugo’s story.
This production has been pared down and the orchestra now at 20 instead of 27 sounds fine; the sets now are filled with image designs by Matt Kinley, which are actually interesting.
There are a lot of Les Miserables fans out there who will settle for mediocre. They gave the show a standing ovation and overlooked its flaws. I stood only when Ramin Karimloo came to take his bow because he is in a different class and that deserves applause.
Les Miserables: Imperial Theatre 249 West 45th Street.