Les Miz is my favorite musical in the whole wide world. When I first saw it 15 years ago it literally changed the course of my life. The moving score, touching story-lines of love, loss and honor make it one of the most powerful musicals of all time. I believed that it's almost impossible to screw it up. Unfortunately, this new version did just that. Not only did it miss the mark, in fact, it is a completely different story and only resembles the original in the use of the score and the names of the characters.
That said, if you've never seen the original production of Les Miz, you may find this version spell-binding, just be aware that it is not the real story of the Les Miz that we all love for it's long run on Broadway. This version should never make it there.
The sets and images by Matt Kinley are lovely, as is the lighting (Paule Constable). The use of screen images to enhance each location of the story is imaginative and works well. But that's the only positive thing about this production. And, truly, I miss the rotating floor and the creative use of lighting to bring to life a mostly bare stage of the original. But then again, in the original version, we had the talent. So the show came to life, not because of the set, but because of the magnificent acting. Here we have to depend on these set and lighting tricks to keep the audiences attention. The acting in this version simply doesn't cut it without other visual aids to keep the audience watching.
The use of colorblind casting does not work for this show. There is, as we know in theatre, a trend to cast roles that are supposed to be white with ethnic actors. This convention can work in certain cases when the color of the character is not integral to the storyline. But when it is, or when the story is set in a historical time, when the difference in color mattered more than it does today, the use of colorblind casting serves to confuse the audience and detracts from the story. That is the case here, with this latest version of Les Miz.
Lawrence Clayton's portrayal of the fugitive Jean Valjean as a black man, leaves much to be desired. He is not have the charisma to carry the show and Lawrence is not the right vocal type for Jean Valjean. The fact that he plays the role as a black slave was obviously a choice, but in doing so, it changes the dynamic of every relationship and changes the original story into another story all together; one that is far less interesting and believable than the original. And I loved the original musical story. I do not love this one. It feels forced and disingenuous to have the role of Jean Valjean reduced to a suffering slave, instead of a hero.
Additionally, the difference in his color from that of Cosette's is a glaring distraction when Cosette (Jenny Latimer) refers to him a "Papa". Seeing that it's visually clear that he is not her father, the ruse he's plays on her would not fool even a Young Cosette (Katherine Forrester) into thinking that he was her real Dad. All this might be forgivable if he'd played the role with some sense of understanding of the magnitude of this role and the power of this character.
Andrew Varela was fine as Javert, but his struggle with himself is unconvincing. I think playing opposite a black actor forced him to tone down what otherwise is a more powerful role. I'm sure you don't what to appear prejudice, but there is no other way to see the character of Javert, considering the current casting choice for Jean Valjean.
And what's up with Young Eponine (Anastasia Korbal) being a small white girl who grows up into an angry black teen (Chasten Hamon). That alone ruins the suspension of disbelieve necessary to make a musical work. Nowhere, with the exception of Michael Jackson, does someone start off one color as a child and change colors as they mature. But even beyond that there were problems with Harmon's portrayal of Eponine.
The Eponine we love who longs for Marius' attention is not in this version of Les Miz. Hamon played a character so unlike Eponine, I'm not sure what she was doing in that cast. First, I had the feeling that she was going to start snapping a Z and speaking in Ebonics at any given moment as she played up her blackness in a very contemporary manner. And given that this is a period piece, her take on Eponine was very distracting from the story.
Additionally, being a black woman in love with a white man significantly changes the nature of her relationship with Marius. In the original, Eponine had an almost innocent illusion that Marius might one day truly see her and care for her. And in fact we know that he does love her like a sister. One of the beauties of the story of her unrequited love is that it creates a sense of longing and hope in every audience member. Thus, when Eponine gives her life for Marius it is a beautiful self-less gesture.
Hamon, however, is far from sympathetic in her portray of Eponine, coming across as a pathetic, desperate, love-lost girl who is bratty, selfish and self-centered; one could hardly hold the interest of Marius, let alone a friendship. I imagine that playing Marius opposite her would make his job of showing grief at her death, a very difficult task. It certainly was not believable. Especially since, as an audience member I was so glad to see her whiny-face finally die. That was the real tragedy and a dismal failure of this new revival.
So, I recommend that if you're going to see Les Miz for the first time, your better off seeing a community theatre version of the original than the so called "Les Miz" revival at Papermill, which is unfortunately the version that will be touring our country.
It is a sad fact that this New "Les Miz" is but a cheap imitation, and does not capture the magic, of it's original counter part.