Wednesday, March 9, 2011

PBS Brings Back Les Miz

A staple during PBS pledge drives is showing the 10th anniversary Dream Cast Special from Les Miserables. It was shown mainly between 1995 and the early 2000s. It was part of my diet of occasional Broadway along with Sweeney Todd, pre-Tim Burton version.

This past weekend, a new version of Les Miserables was shown on PBS during another pledge drive. This was the 25th anniversary arena version that was shown in theaters first (kind of like how they show operas from the Met). It's also available on DVD.

The reviews in the papers mainly harped on how Nick Jonas ruined what's otherwise a really good special. I realize casting him as Marius, the boy among men, is also designed to get the tweens to learn about Broadway. Ironically, the people who created this musical already did that with the "schools version". Seeing young students perform the musical at the very end showed that you don't need a Jonas Brother to keep Broadway alive, If they wanted a teen near-idol as Marius, get Cory Monteith or David Archuleta. At least Lea Michele makes a credible Eponine because she did that as an understudy on Broadway (and young Cosette before that) and in concert in Hollywood.

So, how about the venues: the Dream Cast played at the Royal Albert Hall, while the 25th anniversary event was in the O2 arena, which is like doing A Chorus Line at Madison Square Garden. Despite that, presenting the musical like a massive concert still works, thanks to big screens that add backgrounds and scenes. People still miss the rotating stage, but the O2 stage still works. Also, the Dream Cast is mainly a concert while the 2010 version is more like a musical, including some scenes I didn't see before.
I thought Alfie Boe looked a bit too young as Jean Valjean, but he really made the role his own. Just avoid shedding a tear while he sings "Bring Him Home".
Norm Lewis is a very menacing Javert, a man who has no doubts which winds up staining his humanity. It's the first time I've seen an African-American in that role, but the way he struts around is something you don't forget.
The one thing that recommends this version is bringing back Lea Salonga, the eternal Eponine, as Fantine. Having her be the doomed mother who gives all for Cosette was a great idea.
Matt Lucas makes a great oafish Thenadier, and if his wife looks familiar....yep, it's the same Jenny Galloway who was there 15 years before. Hasn't lost a step. I thought Katie Hall was a bit too bright as Cosette. I guess I prefer Judy Kuhn in that role.

What also makes the 25th anniversary special great is the Four Valjeans, including Colm Wilkerson signing "Bring Him Home". It's as incredible as the hearing 19 different Valjeans from around the world, including Iron Chef Chairman Kaga, signing "Do You Hear the People Sing?" in 1995. Also, we hear from the people who created the musical, including Cameron Mackintosh, and the current London casts and the original members. For now, I'll keep my copy of the Dream Cast, but might pick up the 2010 version eventually.

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