Les Misérables, needless to say, has been around a long time. But it is for good reason. The Imperial Theatre on a recent Saturday night is packed to the rafters, and the excitement in the audience is palpable. Perhaps because the show only opened a couple weeks ago, most of the audience members appear to be seasoned Les Mis fans who have eagerly anticipated the show’s return to Broadway and are ready to welcome it back. Though I am familiar with the musical, this is my first time seeing it live, and compared to them I am a rookie. However, as I can tell from the very vocal reactions of the people around me (everything from cheering to laughter to quietly rummaging for tissues. As for myself, I don’t remember ever crying so much at a performance), the show has equal impact whether it’s your first or hundredth time seeing it. To longtime fans, this production will certainly look familiar, but it still has new and valuable insight to offer. And for anyone who has yet to encounter the show, and particularly its music (the work of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer): there is nothing like hearing this music live. The songs are painful, they are dramatic, and they touch the soul in a way that is truly beautiful. You are not quite the same after you have experienced them.
In general this cast delivers the songs with strength and emotion. Caissie Levy is a strong Fantine, and her rendering of “I Dreamed a Dream” is tremendously powerful. Often, the major solos or soliloquies are delivered, as this one is, on a fairly empty and dark stage, with little movement or distraction. Levy’s voice fills the entire space and is fully capable of holding the audience’s attention. We don’t need anything extra. “The People’s Song” (always a personal favorite) rings out with enthusiasm and inspiration, led by a spirited Kyle Scatliffe as Enjolras. When the song is revived at the end of the show, it seems to bring all the threads of the story together. Will Swenson gives Javert’s Act II “Soliloquy” the complexity it deserves, and the use of a video screen behind him as he jumps from the bridge is effective, while still letting his voice take center stage. The staging is also effective in “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” sung by Andy Mientus as Marius, on a stage lit by candles. The song’s haunting effect is heightened by the group of people standing behind him in a line – all of his friends who were killed in the battle. He cannot see them, but the audience can, and we watch as each candle goes out and each person slowly and quietly leaves the stage. The scene makes Marius’ loneliness even more apparent.
This performance also makes good use of the songs’ lyrics to create welcome moments of comedy. In “Master of the House,” Madame Thénardier (Keala Settle) sings, “Thinks he’s quite a lover but there’s not much there,” and she indicates with her thumb and forefinger just how much her husband is lacking in a certain body part. She then proceeds to slice a sausage with rhythmic attack, each angry stroke of the knife perfectly timed to the music. Settle delivers the words with just the right amount of sarcasm and exasperation, and it’s clear who is really running the show at the inn. In “A Heart Full of Love,” the timing works so that Cosette (Samantha Hill) runs back into her house just before Marius sings “I’m doing everything all wrong,” giving the impression that he is afraid she has rejected him. (Of course, she reemerges outside a few moments later).
There are songs we hear over and over again, like these, and we do not grow tired of them, no matter how many times we replay them or how many versions we hear over the years. And great songs will stand the test of time. But every so often, someone sings a familiar song and teaches us to hear it in a completely new light. Ramin Karimloo’s rendering of “Bring Him Home” is unlike anything I’ve heard before. In general, he captures the rich complexities of Jean Valjean’s character, and highlights them through the variation and range in his singing. But nowhere is his ability more apparent than here. It is a moment of stillness in the show, after the chaotic energy and turmoil of a scene at the barricade. The students have gone to sleep for the night, the theatre is quiet, and Karimloo’s voice breaks softly through the darkness like something otherworldly. He draws out each note with care and finesse, extracting every facet of expression. But he does this without sounding over-the-top – we believe him, and we are right there with him as he sends his simple and heartfelt plea up to the heavens. This is a performer with a true understanding and love of the music he brings to life, and he sings with a sensitivity that reveals parts of the music you didn’t know were there. I doubt I will be able to think of the song in the same way again.