Review – Les Miserables, Imperial Theatre, New York, 18th July 2015

Les Mis, New York, 2015Cramming as much fun into a weekend in New York as possible, our next theatre trip was to see the brand new revised Les Miserables at the Imperial Theatre. I love discovering new theatres, and I really like the fact that the Imperial hasn’t been renamed! It was built in 1923 and has played host to a raft of top quality, significant American musicals over the decades. Oh Kay, The Desert Song, Song of Norway, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, all started their lives here. In relatively recent years it’s become more international with Chess, Billy Elliot and of course two engagements of Les Miserables. Any resident ghost here is going to have a songbook repertoire as long as your shroud.

Les Mis, London, 1986In the grand summer of 1986, together with the then Miss Duncansby, we overdosed on West End shows to our heart’s content, booking up all the big attractions of the time in one fell swoop and devouring them between May and October that year. One of those was Les Miserables, at the Palace Theatre; my ever resourceful archive of programmes tells me we saw it on 10th July 1986 occupying Seats A 29 & 30 in the Dress Circle. Jean Valjean was played by Colm Wilkinson (Ireland’s 1978 Eurovision singer), Javert was Roger Allam, Thénardier was Alun Armstrong, and the minor cast was littered with great names-to-be of the West End like Dave Willetts, Peter Polycarpou, Frances Ruffelle (another Eurovision connection) and Jackie Marks.

Do you hear the people singThose seats; has anyone sat in the front row of the Dress Circle in the Palace? Not good. You feel they ought to be great, but the leg room is infinitesimally tiny. Les Mis is a long show, and, with nowhere to put your knees, it feels much, much longer. At the time I used to suffer from gout occasionally – that was one such occasion. I was in such pain that I couldn’t hobble to the underground station and had to get a taxi from outside the theatre. So it’s fair to say my mind was on other things. As for Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss D) – well she will probably be the first to admit that she was perhaps just a little too young and spirited to appreciate the finer nuances of French revolutionary despair. We liked many of the songs – what’s not to like? But neither of us had any desire to see it again.

Imperial TheatreMany years later (2012) the film came out and re-sparked our interest, and I must say we really enjoyed it. So we have often thought about reappraising our rather jaded memories of Les Mis, and this new, re-orchestrated, re-designed version in New York, seemed like the perfect opportunity. It’s been described as “Les Mis for the American Idol generation”, which very nearly put me off completely. I had horrible visions of “I Dreamed a Dream” being interrupted by whoops and cheers every time there was a pause in the vocals. But I needn’t have worried. Les Miserables is a show so full of heart and integrity, sadness and valour, that the audience is stunned into reflective, appreciative silence during the performance, only to let rip with enthusiastic applause at the end of each number. And that is how it should be!

Ramin KarimlooIt’s a complicated plot, that unravels over decades, and summarising it would be a feat of fine temporal engineering. Suffice to say it’s the story of Jean Valjean, sentenced to 19 years in prison – for stealing bread, and then for trying to escape – but finally released on parole and, 8 years later, reinvented as M. Madeleine, wealthy factory owner and local mayor. Episodically he encounters the sad and abused factory worker Fantine, her daughter Cosette, duplicitous innkeepers the Thénardiers, and their daughter Eponine, revolutionaries Marius (in love with Cosette) and Enjolras, and little street urchin Gavroche. The thread linking Valjean’s lifelong story is his running enmity with Javert, the police officer who blindly pursues him seeking justice for Valjean’s escape. If you need a fuller account I suggest you check Wikipedia.

Jean ValjeanWell, what can I say? The show is absolutely stunning. You’re gripped from the first scene and it doesn’t let up until the instant standing ovation at the end. Mrs C and I took bets as to when we would finally need to fumble for the tissues – and we plumped for Bring Him Home for both of us. Fat chance! I was blubbering at the death of Fantine. That means I didn’t even get past Side One of the double album. Pathetic. There are some incredibly vivid scenes; Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers and encountering Thénardier was electric with movement, atmosphere and eeriness; and the back projection effect for the death of Javert was simply extraordinary. No simple hurling himself off the bridge onto an unseen mattress, this took suicide into another dimension. It’s a complete “hats-off” to the set and image designer, Matt Kinley. Paule Constable’s lighting also played a major part in the visual brilliance of the show – in the barricade scenes, I loved how flashing images between the gaps gave the impression of bombardment and attack; and the brief tableau for the death of Gavroche was agonisingly moving and impactful. The music is as strong as ever, and James Lowe’s orchestra demands your attention just as much as the injustice-filled plot and the extraordinary performances.

Andrew LoveFor yes, many of the performances are absolutely extraordinary. Surely for any musical theatre actor, the role of Jean Valjean must be the most desired of all. Is there a more heroic character anywhere in musical theatre? Starring as JVJ is Ramin Karimloo, personally chosen by Andrew Lloyd-Webber to play the Phantom in Love Never Dies, but also a much-loved performer as the Phantom and Raoul in the original Phantom of the Opera, as well as having played Enjolras and Marius in previous productions of Les Mis. I’d not seen Mr Karimloo before but what a superb performer he is. His voice is magnificently expressive and he has amazing control and elegance to his singing. He really projects the dignity and natural authority of Valjean; and I was right, I didn’t survive his performance of Bring Him Home, I was stifling sobs from the word go.

Erika HenningsenThe other performance that really surprised me with its emotional power was that of Erika Henningsen as Fantine, in her Broadway debut. When I think of the show in general, I think of Fantine as something of an also-ran; “I Dreamed a Dream” is a very nice song, but its impact has lessened over the years owing to its having been covered so many times by so many people. Think again. Miss Henningsen’s voice cuts through the Paris fog with immaculate clarity and beauty, and her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” reinstated it for me as a classic. She performed Fantine’s death scene with such sweet sadness that it shocked me; and when she returns at the end to help guide the dying Valjean to the other side it was almost unbearably moving. If you heard that voice beckoning you to heaven, you’d go like a shot.

Brennyn LarkFor our performance, the role of Javert was played by the understudy, Andrew Love. What a find! As strong and as determined a Javert as you could hope to see, with a fantastic voice that expresses all of the character’s bitterness and obsession. His performance of “Stars” was sensational and he had an uproarious reception at curtain call – definitely One To Watch. We also had a superb Enjolras in the shape of Wallace Smith, who really looked the part and had all the charisma needed to encourage us to man the barricades. His “Red/Black” sequence sent a shiver down your spine. Brennyn Lark cuts a truly tragic figure as Eponine, with a warm and sensuous voice that gets to the heart of the character in a way that I don’t think I’ve heard before. On My Own is a stunning song, and she gave it immense depth.

ThenardiersThe much needed comedy (tinged, of course, with depravity and cruelty) comes from the Thénardiers, performed with terrific verve by Gavin Lee and Rachel Izen. Mr Lee is a musical actor of great skill – we saw him in Mary Poppins a number of years ago and he absolutely lit up the stage in that show, tippetty-tapping all the way around the proscenium arch. His Thénardier is a light-footed, angular, mischievous villain, schmoozing his way around the bar, always on the lookout for a little jewellery to thieve; exchanging knowing glances with the audience, and constantly crossing the boundaries of decency. It’s a very athletic performance, full of physical comedy, but with no sacrifice of the splendour of his singing voice; toe-curlingly brilliant. He is matched by Miss Izen (whom I first saw decades ago in the original London cast of A Chorus Line) as his wretched partner-in-crime, a hideously overblown fashion victim, making the most of the coarse humour of the part, but still with a great voice and wonderful stage presence.

Samantha HillSamantha Hill invests Cosette with child-like glee and enthusiasm for her new-found love, a sweet singing voice and genuine devotion to Valjean. I’m not sure if Chris McCarrell as Marius had a slight sore throat as I felt his rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was so reflective and so introverted, that it maybe lacked the emotional edge of some of the other performances. And a big shout out to 7-year-old (and that is young!) Athan Sporek, our Gavroche, a cheeky little imp unafraid to swagger where angels fear to tread; his gesture to the captured Javert brought the house down.

Chris McCarrellThis production is so overwhelmingly moving that, not only did we continue blubbing on the way out, we started again on the street, and, an hour or two later back in the hotel room, at the mention of the final scene, we started off all over again. It’s the combination of the purity and clarity of the voices with the obviously sad story and the emotionally charged melodies that creates a magic package that plays havoc with your tear ducts. Unbelievably good; staggeringly effective. A magnificent production.

Wallace SmithP.S. In the interval, I bought one diet coke, one sparkling water and two small bottles of still water. $25. TWENTY-FIVE DOLLARS! What’s American for “Yeravinalarfincha?

P.P.S. They really do things differently in America don’t they? Unusually, there was a long queue for the Gents toilet (I mean the male restroom) during the interval. Along a corridor, up some stairs round a corner and into another room. One usher was barking out instructions which queue to join for which toilet, Athan Sporekdepending on whether you were male or female. As he was doing so, he noticed someone trying to get on to the side of the stage in order to take a photograph. Of course, no question, this is bad theatre etiquette, and I understand someone had to ask him to stop, but did we really need this usher to yell out: “SIR!! GET DOWN SIR!!” louder than any of the cast? I was expecting the poor theatregoer to have been shackled in Guantanamo Bay before the curtain call. When I finally neared the end of the queue for the toilets, I discovered another usher was beckoning people a few at a time to turn the corner into the Gents itself. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, QUICKLY!!!” he shouted, as he looked at me. I was shocked at being treated like an errant schoolchild. I’ll walk into the Gents at my own pace, thank you very much. Some people need to go on a remedial respect course. Manners maketh theatre staff.

Review – It Shoulda Been You, Brooks Atkinson Theatre, New York, 17th July 2015

It Shoulda Been YouYes dear reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I snuck in a quick weekend to New York a few days ago, and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hit Broadway. I think it’s actually the law that a tourist must go and see at least one Broadway show every two days they are in New York. So by seeing two shows in two days we admirably covered our legal obligations.

Brooks Atkinson TheatreWith a plethora of choices, I whittled it down to a few, and the first to come up lucky trumps was It Shoulda Been You (I know, American grammar), at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, originally the Mansfield Theatre, which was renamed in 1960 after the New York Times Drama Critic. I wonder if any theatre will be renamed the Chrisparkle in years to come? No, I don’t suppose so either. Anyway it’s a beautiful ornate theatre and our seats were slap bang in the middle of the third row of the Mezzanine – that’s Row C of the Dress Circle to you and me – and they give you a superbly clear view of the stage.

Pre-wedding arrangementsThe book and lyrics are by Brian Hargrove, and it’s directed by David Hyde Pierce, best known to us Brits as Niles from Frasier. Funnily enough, we saw Mr Hyde Pierce the last time we saw a show on Broadway, in the rather irritating Curtains, back in 2008. Mr Hyde Pierce and Mr Hargrove are also married to each other. So I think it’s fair to say this is falls under the category of “joint enterprise – keeping it in the family”. That can sometimes be an uncomfortable category, when one partner just hasn’t got the heart to tell the other partner that their contribution to the project sucks. Or, indeed, that the whole project sucks. Believe me, we’ve seen a few like that.

HairdressingBut fortunately no such conversation need take place in the Hyde Pierce/Hargrove household because the show is a complete delight. Played for laughs, you could summarise it as Hilarious New York Jewish Wedding Disaster, but there’s more to it than that. Rebecca Steinberg is getting married to Brian Howard, and the families have hired this swanky hotel for the day. Rebecca’s horrendously sniping mother Judy, and Brian’s horrendously snooty mother Georgette, don’t see eye to eye on much. Good news, then, that they have a miracle worker of a wedding planner in the form of Albert, to make sure that wrinkles are kept to the minimum. There’s an ex-boyfriend too, Marty, who discovers the wedding is taking place at the last minute, and who has no compunction about gatecrashing. And there’s Jenny, Rebecca’s sister, always the bridesmaid and never the bride, made to feel as wretched and irrelevant as possible by Judy’s tactless tongue. As you can imagine, there are last minute hitches, embarrassing moments, brides in hiding, in-laws getting drunk, and all the usual rough and tumble of a difficult wedding shebang. Somehow, the happy couple make it, and become Mr and Mrs Howard. And just as you thought they were going to live happily ever after…. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what comes next, but as Albert the wedding planner says, to a wave of hysteria from the audience, “well, I didn’t see that one coming!”

SistersThis is a show that definitely puts laughter and entertainment first. It’s great to look at, there are some funny and well performed songs, and it’s full of recognisable characters who, almost without exception, remain believable and don’t stray into caricature. It doesn’t go too deep in its soul-searching and whilst it has some interesting things to say about modern marriage and relationships in general, it does keep its nose well above water and comes out showbiz-tapping the morse code (figuratively speaking) whenever it can.

It shoulda been you, MartyAnna Louizos’ set design is a delicious multi-layered, multi-storeyed affair, easily suggesting at least eight rooms and a landing at any given time; and I really liked the corridor effect between the downstairs front and rear rooms which enables characters to move left or right through the set whilst remaining partly visible, thereby linking all the different stage areas together at the same time. William Ivey Long’s costumes look smashing, giving him plenty of scope to provide Sunday-best wedding outfits and opportunity for couture-based one-upmanship between any warring parties. Lawrence Yurman’s orchestra give the music light punchiness and musical tricks to keep the party sparky. All in all, it’s a show with very high production values.

Mother and daughterThe cast work seamlessly together to create a busy ensemble of to-ing and fro-ing wedding guests and participants, but there are a few star performers who really light up the show whenever they’re on. Heading the cast (and, we admit, the main reason for choosing to see this show) is Tyne Daly, one of Mrs C’s heroines when she was a wee girl (she was glued to Cagney and Lacey in her formative years). We haven’t seen Miss Daly live before and she’s a complete hoot. As the combustible Judy, she throws herself into delightful scenes of calculating viciousness and pretend self-effacement, with effortlessly brilliant comic timing. There’s a slight element of pantomime in the way she occasionally catches the audience’s eye to let us know she’s about to do something outrageous, but that just adds to the fun. The audience adores her, and I must say, I did too.

Groom's motherAs her opposite in the mother-in-law-from-hell stakes, Harriet Harris takes on the role of Georgette with one hand keeping her hair coiffured and the other clutching a gin and tonic. It’s a wonderfully funny performance, giving her two personas to play with: the rather wretched wife and mother, clinging on to the wreckage with alcoholic support, wallowing in her attempts to stop her son from marrying just so that she can have him all to herself, sticking with her equally manipulative husband just for the sex; and the posh, point-scoring social animal, regarding having her hair done by anyone other than Elsie as simply beneath her, ready to outsmart the Steinbergs at all opportunities, and to take joy in their discomfort. Despite having been in loads of shows over the years, Miss Harris is new to me but what a fun and assured stage performer she is.

JennyLisa Howard is fantastic as Jenny, the older sister with a beautiful heart but not (as Judy will point out) the classic figure to accompany it. She has a wonderful singing voice and she easily gets the audience on her side in her battles for what’s right. She is matched perfectly by Sierra Boggess as Rebecca; the essence of sweet and charming, also with a magnificent voice. Josh Grisetti makes his Broadway debut as Marty, and it’s going to look great on his CV. A funny, athletic performance – you can feel the audience cheer up whenever he enters the stage. If he can get the girl, any of us can – a shining beacon of hope for us all. As Albert, Edward Hibbert gets many of the best lines and squeezes as much fun as possible out of them, oozing over the top campness to great comic effect. But the whole cast give an excellent performance and it’s impossible to come out of this show without laughing your head off on the way back home. It’s due to close on August 9th, so if you are in New York, do yourself a favour and book. It’s much, much more than just a “wedding gone wrong” show.

Married blissP.S. The performance takes approximately 100 minutes – without an intermission. Regular readers might remember that I really like my intervals wherever possible. It’s an opportunity to move around, have a drink, pop to the loo and discuss the show with your nearest and dearest. It also makes more of an occasion of the show by making it last a little longer, as well as being good for the theatre’s shop/bar/snacks sales. There were two moments in this show where an interval would have fitted in perfectly. Alas, they didn’t take that opportunity.

It could only be musical comedyP.P.S. It’s really fascinating to compare British and American audiences. American audiences get so much more wrapped up in what’s happening on stage and will react more audibly and with greater vitality than us Brits. There were several moments during this show when the audience simply couldn’t contain their joy at what they were seeing on stage – and where a British audience member would simply have thought to themselves “oh yes, jolly well done”. I know that, on Broadway, if you don’t get a standing ovation at the end of the show, basically you’ve done something seriously wrong. But for me, this show fully deserved its S.O.

The brilliant production photographs are courtesy of Joan Marcus.