Arnold Bennett, no stranger to the quotidian himself, once accused James Joyce of selecting the “dailiest day” as the subject of his novel Ulysses. Les Misérables, then, could be said to concern itself with the most epical epic: it is the story of a decades long feud between petty thief Jean Valjean (Ramin Karimloo) and police inspector Javert (Will Swenson), it is the story of a romance between a student agitator, Marius Pontmercy (Andy Mientus), and an illegitimate girl, Cosette (Samantha Hill), and it is a highly sentimental account of the June Rebellion. Les Misérables does not turn it up to eleven because it is always at eleven. This is a world in which dreaming itself is insufficient; one must dream a dream, just as one might fight a fight or howl a howl.
Which is fine. Last year, Jekyll & Hyde‘s high-pitched melodrama proved an absolute delight. But here, all the pomp seems to outweigh any interest in narrative or character. Someone much more familiar with the musical than myself said that it felt like watching a concert in which all the songs from Les Misérables were sung. And indeed, this poppy production never provides any kind of emotional connection to what is happening onstage. Mr. Karimloo plays Jean Valjean more like a Latin heartthrob than a good and desperate man who has found himself the victim of economic depression, and Mr. Swenson rarely offers us a glimpse of what makes Javert so interesting—his unrelenting obsession with Valjean. His suicide, along with all the major events of the musical, seem to occur out of nowhere or at least much earlier than expected, since directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have zero sense of momentum: scenes are not build up to but plopped in our laps. Meanwhile, any indication of the class or ideological conflicts that Les Misérables covers are buried under admittedly very hummable tunes.
Ultimately, this show is lacking the passion and sincerity of a musical produced by those who love it; it seems more about the $40 t-shirts than it does about anything else. Though Les Misérables has always been a behemoth, it has perhaps suffered the watering down of becoming an international institution.
Les Misérables runs through September 4th at the Imperial Theatre. 249 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 55 minutes. One intermission.