PLAYBILL.COM'S THEATRE WEEK IN REVIEW, March 22-28: Back to the Barricades and Off to Neverland

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28 Mar 2014

Ramin Karimloo
Ramin Karimloo
Matthew Murphy

Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg's musical Les Misérables enjoyed its third Broadway opening in 30 years this week, as a reimagined revival featuring fresh scenic and narrative elements, as well as new orchestrations, officially opened March 23 at the Imperial Theatre — the show's onetime home on Broadway for nearly 13 years and 5,244 performances.

West End actor Ramin Karimloo made his Broadway debut as Jean Valjean, the musical's virtuous but luckless protagonist, and Will Swenson — miles away from his star-making performance as the free-living Berger in Hair — played Javert, the obsessive French policemen who will never let Valjean forget that he stole a loaf of bread way back when.

The new production was directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell and designed by Matt Kinley (inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo). 

Critics found the new staging appealingly lean and less melodramatic — though some thought this approach exposed the show's flaws more clearly. "To say this production is not as bombastic as the original is to rate it at perhaps an 8 instead of a 10 on the Hugo scale," said New York Magazine. "At the same time, the simplified staging works against the show by further exposing the thinness of the writing." Wrote the New York Times, "This Les Miz will offend none of the musical's fans with any directorial innovations, and will give them a chance to assess how a new generation of performers meets the challenges of the score." Time Out New York agreed that "It's strictly for existing fans."

The more spartan staging, most agreed, benefited the singers most — particularly Karimloo, whom every critic admired. His rendition of "Bring Him Home" was mentioned by more than one reviewer as a high point of the show. "Ramin Karimloo brings steel-and-honey pipes to his anthemic numbers," said Time Out New York. Offered the Times, "Making a sterling Broadway debut, [Karimloo] sets a high standard in the prologue, performing Valjean's angry soliloquy with fiery intensity and full-throttled vocalism that gradually shades into more nuanced coloring... The highlight of his performance, and perhaps the production as a whole, is Mr. Karimloo's beautifully restrained but richly felt rendition of 'Bring Him Home'…"

Swenson, however, also received his share of accolades. "[Karimloo's] performance is affecting throughout, but Swenson is a bigger revelation," opined the New York Post, while New York Magazine said, "A less-expected delight is Will Swenson. Though his Broadway credits (including Hair and Priscilla Queen of the Desert) did not suggest the stature and discipline needed for an effective Javert, he offers a highly mannered but convincing interpretation, biting decisively into every musical phrase like a Doberman."

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Mothers and Sons — a new drama by playwright Terrence McNally that stars Tyne Daly as a mother paying a surprise visit to her late son's ex-partner, played by Frederick Weller — was the other big opening of the week. It officially opened March 24 at the John Golden Theatre, directed by Sheryl Kaller. Both Daly and Kaller repeated their work from the June 2013 Bucks County production.

Some admired McNally's work. Time Out New York said it was "arguably McNally's best play in 20 years," and the AP observed, "The 90-minute play moves quickly, and although some of the most angry exchanges seem to erupt from nowhere, the playwright beautifully shows how close to the surface long-suppressed emotions and slights can fester."



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