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

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.

Ramin Karimloo in Les Misérables
Ramin Karimloo in Les Misérables (Photo by Matthew Murphy)

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." ***

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."

Tyne Daly
Photo by Joan Marcus

Others found it somewhat forced and stilted. "While it's absorbing and at times mildly affecting, this shapeless drama never probes deep enough," said the Hollywood Reporter, "its air of artificiality making it appear to have been rushed to Broadway with insufficient development." The New York Times, meanwhile, said the play "is wrapped in a sense of urgency that paradoxically saps it as a drama. It wears its significance defiantly and a bit stiffly, rather as Ms. Daly's character, a Dallas matron visiting Manhattan, wears the big, blocky fur coat in which we first see her... It is, in essence, a debate play with fraught emotional underpinnings, and it doesn't avoid the stasis of that genre. It also tends to sabotage its potential to move us by making the debate, rather than psychological credibility, its first priority." Everyone, however, admired Kaller and, especially, Daly. The Times called the play "impeccably acted," while Variety referred to Daly as "ever-astonishing." Times Out added, "Daly's commanding performance helps check McNally's impulses toward pop sociology and reverse nostalgia. She has the strength and give of melting steel."

***

The new stage musical adaptation of Finding Neverland, which has had a troubled production history, sailed into a safe haven this week. The show, featuring a score by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, will premiere as part of the 2014-15 season at the hit-making Boston company, American Repertory Theater.

The new rendition with be helmed by A.R.T.'s Midas-touched artistic director Diane Paulus ( Pippin, Hair) in July. Based on the 2004 Miramax film about Peter Pan playwright J.M. Barrie, the new version of the musical has a new score by U.K. pop songwriters Barlow and Kennedy and a book by James Graham. A previous incarnation of the musical, which featured a score by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie, received a 2012 U.K. premiere. The fierce Hollywood power broker Harvey Weinstein is shepherding the project.

Also on the ART schedule, in May 2015, is The Last Two People on Earth: An Apocalyptic Vaudeville, helmed by recent New Yorker profile subject, Susan Stroman, and starring Mandy Patinkin and Taylor Mac. A workshop production was presented in New York by Classic Stage Company earlier this season. The show's description sounds like the Apocalypse as imagined by showbiz folk: "It's the end of the world as we know it. A flood of biblical proportions leaves us with only two people on Earth who discover their common language is song and dance. Together they chronicle the rise and fall and hopeful rise again of humankind through music that runs the gamut from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Sondheim, and R.E.M. to Queen." Ah, if only the end of the world turned out as nicely as that.

***

Hey, it worked for the French musical. Why not the English one?

Producer Cameron Mackintosh, who saw the cultural currency of his Les Misérables skyrocket after it was made into an Oscar-winning film, is pursuing a film remake of another one of his past projects: The Lionel Bart musical Oliver!, according to the Daily Mail.

Mackintosh produced the acclaimed 1994 London revival of the 1960 musical at the London Palladium, which returned in a 2009 production at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Mackintosh is currently seeking the film rights to the musical, which have been sold to various parties throughout the years, the Daily Mail reported. 

"Every time I think I've unravelled the complex web of film rights, someone else comes out of the woodwork, saying they own this or that aspect," Mackintosh told the Daily Mail.

Unlike  Les Misérables, Oliver! already has a screen history. It won the 1968 Academy Award for Best Picture in its original film incarnation.