BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | It’s probably battle fatigue. “Les Misérables” is easily the most over-exposed musical of the past three decades. Long run on Broadway, two revivals, concert versions, major motion picture, tours, high school productions, and so forth. That could be one reason the current revival at the Imperial Theatre is so undistinguished.
It does have a new look, with sets by Matt Kinley based on the paintings of Victor Hugo and lots of projections to make it more cinematic, but the show just seems tired. Laurence Connor and James Powell’s direction lacks urgency, and the effect is more of a staged concert as the show moves from set piece to set piece. Ultimately, it’s a flat and passionless affair.
For what is essentially a concert, the sound is so processed the effect is like listening to a recording, and so many effects are added to the voices that it doesn’t feel real. We really don’t need an echo added to the beginning of the iconic “I Dreamed a Dream.” Actually, what’s needed in the case of Caissie Levy, who sang the role, is an Auto-Tune, as she was consistently flat, singing as though she couldn’t hear the musicians.
Similarly, Nikki M. James, who has been so wonderful in shows like “The Book of Mormon,” is out of her depth vocally with this score. She is virtually inaudible in the quartet in the first act, and her voice is reedy and unsupported in “A Little Fall of Rain,” her should-be heart-stopping death number.
The leading men do better. Ramin Karimloo sings Jean Valjean with power and nuance. His acting is fairly flat, but Valjean isn’t an overly demanding role. Best of the company is Will Swenson as Javert. He shows a surprising range, including low notes we haven’t heard from him before, and though the part is anything but subtle and understated, his actually the only believable character in this production.
As the evil Thérnadiers, Cliff Saunders and Keala Settle are far too cartoonish and broad for the rest of the production. It’s understandable that the directors would want to lighten the overarching gloom of the show, but lost is their delicious wickedness. Instead, they are merely grotesques.
This production is clearly pitched at people who loved the movie and now want to see it live on stage — like “Muppet Babies on Ice” or “The Wiggles in Concert.” As a dynamic piece of theater, however, “Les Misérables” is nowhere to be found here.
The new musical “If/ Then” fails on almost every level except one — the chance for newly minted superstar Idina Menzel (prior to “Let it Go” from “Frozen,” she was just a regular star based on her role as Elphaba in “Wicked.”) to shake the back wall of the Richard Rodgers Theater with her trademark adenoidal belt.
Brian Yorkey who wrote the book and lyrics and Tom Kitt who wrote the music have given themselves an almost impossible task — to run two simultaneous story tracks and make the characters something more than sketches. The plots follow the potential outcomes of choices in front of Elizabeth (Menzel) — following a budding career in urban planning and aborting an unplanned pregnancy, and alternatively having the child and putting her career on hold to be a wife and mother.
Leaving aside the fact that urban planning hardly rates as an engaging romantic theme, the intermixed plots are so vaguely sketched it’s impossible to make an emotional connection with either Elizabeth. Worse, the creators surround Elizabeth with the most generic group of besties ever –– the gay ones, the black ones, the Asian ones, who, despite earnest efforts by charming actors, seem as labored and contrived as the whole undertaking.
This is musical writing by the numbers. We have the song that shows us that the fairly conservative Elizabeth can be vulgar and the climactic “Always Starting Over,” which wants to be an 11 o’clock number, but comes at about 9:45. The latter is loud, self-important, obvious, and banal. It’s a shame to see Menzel’s unique and idiosyncratic talent so egregiously wasted.
The rest of the cast does what they can. LaChanze is the best of the bunch as the feisty lesbian kindergarten teacher. Anthony Rapp plays Lucas, Elizabeth’s sexually confused best friend from grad school, as well-meaning, but it’s always confusing where he is in the storyline. Jason Tam, as Lucas’ boyfriend, and James Snyder, the army surgeon who’s Elizabeth’s baby daddy, are pleasant but bland.
Director Michael Greif doesn’t do much but move the cast around Mark Wendland’s nice sets. And while Larry Keigwin’s choreography could charitably been interpreted as homage to Bob Fosse’s urban movement in “Sweet Charity,” in fact it’s largely inorganic and pretentious.
Most egregious, though, is the inherent sexism of the premise — that Elizabeth’s choices are limited to stereotypes for what women can be. She can be either the loving and long-suffering mom or the hard-bitten career gal. Oh/ Please.
If high school murders and songs like “I Love My Dead Gay Son” are your idea of comedy, then by all means nip over to New World Stages and catch “Heathers: The Musical.” The sloppy satire based on the 1988 movie of the same name is mean-spirited, ineptly written, and abjectly cynical.
The story concerns a clique of mean girls, all named Heather, who control the social life of their high school. When climber Veronica joins their ranks, her psychopath boyfriend J.D. starts bumping people off to get even for the slights inflicted on the less popular. I never saw the movie, so perhaps in the days before Columbine and cyber-bullying this kind of revenge fantasy had an outsized appeal. Today, it’s chilling to watch the claque of teens at the performance I saw scream with delight when the two football stars were murdered and the killers frame it as a joint suicide because they couldn’t deal with being gay.
There are those who will say “lighten up” while comparing this to “Grease,” but that’s a false comparison. “Grease” was a better show, and it was more clearly satirizing identifiable types. The most dangerous outcome there was an unintended pregnancy. Perhaps if the book, music, and lyrics by Kevin Murphy and Laurence O’Keefe approached the level of satire of “Grease,” “Heathers” wouldn’t fall so flat or seem so mean-spirited.
The enthusiastic performers do their best, but to no avail. The comedy is clumsy, the singing and choreography mostly generic belting, and the whole undertaking simply tone deaf to the realities of today’s culture.
LES MISÉRABLES | Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St. | Tue., Thu. at 7 p.m.; Wed., Fri.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $57-$139 at telecharge.com or 800-432-7250 | 3 hrs., with intermission
IF/ THEN | Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 W. 46th St. | Tue.-Wed. at 7 p.m.; Thu.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m. | $67-$142 at ticketmaster.com or 800-745-3000 | 2 hrs., 45 min., with intermission
HEATHERS: THE MUSICAL | New World Stages, 340 W. 50th St. | Mon., Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Sat. at 2:30 p.m.; Sun. at 3 & 7:30 p.m. | $50-$75 at telecharge.com or 212-239-6200 | 2 hrs., 20 min., with intermission