LES MISERABLES by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg (Cameron Mackintosh/Mirvish). At the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King West). Limited run. $35-$130. 416-872-1212, mirvish.com. See listing. Rating: NNNN
There are too few moments of transcendence at the theatre, but one of them happened last night at the Princess of Wales, when Ramin Karimloo held the purest, gentlest, most angelic note at the end of Bring Him Home, escaped convict Jean Valjean's plea to God to bring his adoptive daughter's boyfriend to safety.
The song, which earned a thunderous ovation, could have been the theme of last night's spectacular premiere at the Princess of Wales.
It's a theatrical homecoming for Karimloo, who was born in Tehran but grew up in Richmond Hill, Ontario before moving to the UK and becoming a musical theatre star in shows like The Phantom Of The Opera, Les Mis and the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies.
It's also a return home for the show itself, which ran here for years in the mid 1980s and arrives in a reimagined 25th anniversary production, complete with a mostly Canadian cast and vivid new orchestrations.
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this version is simultaneously majestic and intimate. Gone is the revolving stage, which was so helpful in moving along novelist Victor Hugo's complex plot about justice, love and revolutionary fervor through half a century in 19th century France. But until the clunky denouement, which has always been anticlimactic, the thing still moves with the speed of a shot cannon ball.
Projections of Hugo's own drawings serve as a backdrop to the action - which involves Valjean (Karimloo) and his ward Cosette (Samantha Hill) being pursued over decades by the single-minded Inspector Javert (Earl Carpenter) - and are quite effective in depicting France's increased industrialization and the poverty and congestion of mid-century Paris. Matt Kinley's sets evoke a crowded factory, a bustling inn and a gentrified Parisian ball efficiently. And during the central sections about the student-led Paris Uprising of 1832, there's even effective use of the boxes to the side of the stage.
The cast is nearly perfect. Carpenter, stiff of body and strong of voice, makes a frighteningly focused and determined antagonist; Hill and Genevieve Leclerc, who plays Cosette's tragic mom Fantine, are sweet-voiced and sympathetic although they have some problems with diction; Perry Sherman and Mark Uhre bring youthful verve to their student revolutionaries Marius and Enjolras; Melissa O'Neil makes her lovelorn Eponine rough-edged and tender-hearted, although her beautifully-sung On My Own sounds a bit too Top 40 for a musical; and Cliff Saunders (incredibly nimble-footed) and Lisa Horner make their Thenardiers a delightfully nasty couple of innkeepers cum scavengers.
But it's Karimloo you'll remember most. He plays the early scenes with vicious ferocity, snarling through his lines with an animalistic anger. When his Valjean experiences a life-altering moment of grace thanks to a forgiving Bishop (Andrew Love) he's genuinely perplexed - his Soliloquy and Who Am I? are full of genuine emotion and philosophical searching - and he has the charisma and authority to keep all eyes on him during the rousing act one closer, One Day More.
At 35, he lacks the gravitas and maturity to pull off the later scenes - despite some old-guy makeup - but he's the real deal, and makes you see and hear new things in this most demanding of roles. (He should also erase all memories of Hugh Jackman's screechy movie performance.) Let's hope he stays in the cast when the show transfers later to Broadway.
The Mirvishes have brought Karimloo home. You owe it to yourself to see him while he's here.