by Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.
Les Miserables, the Musical
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird
Associate Director Shaun Kerrison
Produced by Cameron Mackintosh
The Broadhurst Theater
235 West 44th Street
Reviewed January 3, 2007 by Margaret Croyden
Cameron Mackintosh, the program says, has produced "hundreds of productions." His well known "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables" (the first) were the three longest running musicals in Broadway history. It may be more than fifteen years since the original "Les Mis" (as is commonly known) hit Broadway and resulted in millions of dollars that Mackintosh and his associates have garnished from these enterprises. Mackintosh has still another production on Broadway, "Mary Poppins" that had already been playing in London for some time and undoubtedly will reap more profits. So what does Cameron Mackintosh want? More.
And More he got (and more we got) with this revival of "Les Mis" including bad reviews, bad publicity, and a bad production. Not that he cut the show down in any way. It is still cluttered, still filled with a large company of singers, dozens of extras--and the enormous set. Still the production proved boring all the same. Why?
Take the opening number, which must set the energy and the pace for the entire show. If the opening number doesn't work, the rest will fall flat. So the first thing we see is the ensemble dressed in rags and smeared with dirt, dragging on to their assigned places in a chorus lineup. We got the point immediately; it was telegraphed only too clearly. Look at us, they said, we are the wretched ones of France. From then on, we got more of the same: overplayed characterizations, repeated scenes, more dirty faces, more ragged costumes, more shouting, more posturing. Whores, pimps, scoundrels, thieves, wretches of every sort, all overplayed, all similar looking, all there to remind us that soon the revolution will come--if we could sit there for three hours. But deja vue set in quickly as predictability and repetition haunted every scene, until the production seemed like a nineteenth century melodrama, an updated "Little Nell" about to be sent to the orphanage by her cruel guardians.
Though the director used every theatrical trick he could think of--huge scaffolds rising above the proscenium, gigantic sets slowly moving in and rising before one's eyes, dark impressionistic lighting, clever ensemble positions for the large cast--he could not put new life into an old production. That is, if director Trevor Nunn even bothered to direct this new company though his name is in the program. It is hard to believe that Nunn, known for his brilliant talent and superb work with the Royal Shakespeare Company, really had a hand in this revival. An associate director is listed. Could it be....?
Now for the singers. I will say this for them. They were actually articulate; their diction was distinct and very clear. so that unfortunately the banality of the lyrics became all too plain. Victor Hugo wrote in French, the text needed translating into English and adapted for the stage; then the music and English lyrics needed to match the French tone. Which was sadly missing. Nothing resembled Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables;" it just became a Broadway musical determined be lavish, massive and imposing.
One of the drawbacks was the actor-singers' inability to express genuine feeling; emotions were indicated, telegraphed as it were. Performers resorted to stereotypes as they tried to create whores, pimps, crones, workers, villains, policemen. The little orphan girl and the wicked innkeeper and his wife were recognizable--right out of Trevor Nunn's old "Nicholas Nickleby" production, or a PBS Masterpiece theater. But PBS does it much better.
Extravaganzas are the stock and trade of Cameron Mackintosh's productions. His loves the grandiose, the spectacular, the shocking. He loves to put airplanes, cars, massive chandeliers, and huge sets on stage. And the public seems to enjoy this. Nonetheless it cheapens musicals and reduces them to a Las Vegas asthetic if an asthetic is there in the first place. But the public doesn't seem to mind. These revivals sell out. So can we expect More ? Ugh...
Margaret Croyden's most recent book is "Conversations With Peter Brook, 1970-2000" published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
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