By Tracy Lum
Twenty-five years ago, “Les Misérables” premiered in London, paving the way for a new kind of musical. It was a musical that replaced the slaphappy grins, noxiously sweet melodies and mindless dancing common to many performances with revolutionary furor, an intricate plot and all the passion and drama found in the original novel by Victor Hugo. Its legacy was nearly destroyed by the whiny voice of Nick Jonas in the play’s anniversary concert currently airing on PBS.
Jonas, of the pop group the Jonas Brothers, entertained the thousands crowded into the O2 arena in London as Marius, one of the student revolutionaries. Jonas strained to hit the same notes that the experienced actors so easily belted. While he certainly looked the part of naïve, love-struck Marius, the tone and quality of his voice failed to properly mesh and harmonize with that of his love interest, Cosette (Katie Hall). While Hall’s chilling voice filled the entire arena, Jonas’s unconvincingly whimpered his undying love. Their relationship consequently faded into the background of the multifaceted plot.
The plot of “Les Misérables” centers on Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread in the period leading up to the French Revolution. He violates parole but vows to turn his life around. After assuming another identity, he becomes mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, and later adopts Cosette from an innkeeper and his wife to save her from a life of poverty and servitude. A myriad of colorful, secondary characters embellish the bleak French background with their own personal conflicts while Valjean struggles with his secret.
Fortunately, the remaining cast members more than compensated for Jonas’s lackluster performance. Alfie Boe soulfully sang the part of Jean Valjean. While his voice lacked clarity, his face conveyed the necessary emotions for “Who Am I?” and “Bring Him Home.” Lea Salonga, who played Eponine in the 10th anniversary concert, returned as Fantine, Cosette’s mother. During “I Dreamed a Dream,” tears welled up in Salonga’s eyes as her character bemoaned the death of hope and promise in her life. Norm Lewis stole the show as Javert, the policeman who pursues Valjean relentlessly. With his precise diction, bounding vocals and rigid stance, Lewis flawlessly portrayed the stern and righteous Javert.
The anniversary concert lacked the turntable stage and set typical of “Les Misérables” performances, but the music was no less stirring. The characters appeared on stage in costume but sang to the audience rather than to each other. Behind them was a full chorus of backup singers who bobbed along to classics like “Do You Hear the People Sing?” and “Master of the House.”
In reimagining the play for the concert, directors Laurence Connor and James Powell also incorporated Hugo’s original illustrations into the background images. Three enormous screens displayed close-ups of the characters on stage and scenes from prior stage productions of the musical. Red, white and blue lights also shone on the stage, recreating the French flag, while confetti showered the audience during the epic finale. As an added bonus, members of the original 1985 cast joined their counterparts in reprising fan favorites.
Despite the glitzy features of the concert, however, what has carried “Les Misérables” throughout the years is its powerful music and its timeless themes of love and revolution. Even without the full action, props and set, the concert was just as gripping as any full production. Compelling, complete and emotionally charged, “Les Misérables” in all forms will undoubtedly continue to resonate with audiences worldwide.