The audience began applauding before a single actor stepped onto the stage. A wrenching and commercially successful movie rendition that was released just over a year ago has primed the crowd for this second Broadway revival of “Les Misérables.”
The production opened March 23 at the Imperial Theater, the longtime home of the original Broadway production. The musical has become part of the pop culture lexicon — this show is the third Broadway production of “Les Mis” in recent years, as the original closed in 2003 and there was a short-lived revival in 2006. The 2012 film version was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards.
Perhaps recognizing that the Broadway stage is not the same as the Hollywood film set, directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have differentiated this production from the widely discussed movie by choosing a decidedly star-free cast, rather than big stars like Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. The audience is presented with actors who have experience, but are not household names.
The cast struggles under the weight of this classic. Ramin Karimloo stars as Jean Valjean, the thief who emerges from his years in captivity as a rich gentleman full of mercy for France’s poorer social groups. Although Karimloo manages to play both the criminal and the godly man, he flubs the transformation from one to the other. In “Who Am I?,” a song that exemplifies Valjean’s intense inner conflict, Karimloo vacillates between emotions, leaving little room for growth.
He leads the cast through a first act that frantically rushes through the musical’s trademark misery and struggle and skims over the deeper threads of compassion, self-discovery and hope. With the most important themes failing to emerge, the characters intended for comic relief become the crown jewel of “Les Mis.”
Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle excel as the unsavory Thérnadier couple, the master of the house and his wife. They use every gesture, expression and song as an opportunity to send the audience into peals of laughter.
Child actor Gaten Matarazzo shines as the gutsy Gavroche. If his shameless upstaging of the other actors is any indication, he shares some of his character’s pluck. The funny moments carry the show through to the second act, where “Les Misérables” slows to a pace that luckily relies more on plot than on character growth. With this, the production is finally able to overcome its uneven cast.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, March 26 print edition. Leora Rosenberg is a staff writer. Email her at email@example.com.