Dr. Blackwell's BLOG

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Theater Reviews: Les Miserables and Aladdin

Filed under: Performing Arts — Dr. Christopher Blackwell @ 01:43

I had the opportunity to venture to NYC this past weekend with my partner to celebrate our 5-year anniversary. We were able to catch the revival of Les Miserables, Aladdin, Disney’s newest addition to Broadway, and the incredible current production of Cabaret at Studio 54. My reviews of Les Miz and Aladdin appear below. Click here to read my original review of CabaretTheater Review: Cabaret.

Les Miserables

LES MIS 2014 key art

There’s a lot to like in the new revival of Les Miserables which opened March 23rd at the iconic Imperial Theater on Broadway. There are also some minor annoyances which provide only a little not to like. Overall, however, the show is as spine-chilling and inspirational as ever. One of the most noticeable differences in this production of Les Miz is its more grand production scope than seen previously. The revival trades in the traditional rotating stage table for much more elaborate sets. While prior productions of the show relied much more on dark lighting to essentially create mood in the place of any real noteworthy set designs, that isn’t the case here. The sets are large and seem much more what would be seen in a mid-budget Broadway production. While I was originally concerned that the larger sets and lack of rotating table would distract from the minimalistic tone that made many fans love the show, I quickly found myself having the opposite emotion. The scenes are greatly enhanced and the overall quality of the production shines when given the opportunity to do so on a larger scale. The costumes seem to be a little more detailed in the revival as well; and the lighting, while maintaing the show’s overall darkened environment, seems to be appropriately brighter in certain scenes (“Master of the House,” for example).

The cast has some truly shining stars; but unfortunately, miscasting also is a concern. As Valjean, Ramin Karimloo (The Phantom in the West End Production of Love Never Dies) is great. His voice is so different and fantastic that he is able to bring a superb personal quality to the role that allows him to interpret the character uniquely on his own. It isn’t a surprise that he was nominated for the Tony Award for his performance.  Tony Nominee Keala Settle (Madame Thenadier) steals essentially every scene she is in as well; her hilarious interpretation of the oversized yet lovable con-artist brings the comedic relief the show is at times desperate for given its incredibly heavy story. Cassie Levy (the original Molly from the West End and Broadway productions of GHOST) hits the role of Fantine out of the park; her solo “I Dreamed a Dream” was heart wrenchingly convincing. And while these actors bring this production of the show to new heights, there are some distractors who unfortunately bring it down. Tony Award winner Nikki M. James (The Book of Mormon) is horrifically miscast as Eponine. Her soft and almost whiny voice becomes an obvious flaw in “On My Own;” and the alteration of her race when the older version of her character is revealed comes off as strange and unnecessary. Another poorly cast actor is Kyle Scatliffe as Enjolras. Unfortunately, he has a strong lisp that overpowers his singing ability and I found myself cringing in almost every scene in which he was featured. With the amazing and competitively cutthroat talent on Broadway, I seriously question just how he was able to be cast in the show in the first place.

But even with these two awkward casting choices, Les Miz has enough shining and soaring moments that make these sore thumb stick-out performances easily forgotten. The orchestrations are absolutely brilliant; and the sound design in the theater is so well done that there are times when Claude-Michael Schoenberg’s classic score sounds as if it’s being performed by a 100-piece orchestra. The book, based on Victor Hugo’s classic tale of forgiveness and redemption set in the backdrop of an emerging French Revolution, is unaltered in the revival. This is a wise choice since the original production of Les Miz remains one of the most beloved musicals of all time. And while this production may not live in the hearts of theatergoers quite as long, it certainly has enough to it to leave quite the positive impression.



With such Broadway mega-hits like The Lion KingBeauty and the Beast, and Newsies in their massively profitable portfolio, it was just a matter of time before Disney turned their iconic cartoon-movie Aladdin into their next Broadway jewel. And unfortunately, while the costumes are adorned with enough shimmering rubies to put a disco ball to shame, the show itself quickly tarnishes. The one standout of the production is Tony winner James Monroe-Igleheart (MEMPHIS), who brings the story’s energetic and hilarious genie literally to life. However, he is immersed in such a sea of mediocrity around him that he practically upstages his fellow performers. I don’t fault him for that. Besides Jonathan Freeman’s standout performance as Jafaar, none of the other actors in the show are even remotely memorable. Sure, Adam Jacobs is ridiculously nice to look at. And his voice is certainly fine. But the same cannot be said of Jasmine’s Courtney Reed, who’s flat and unimpressive vocals leave much to be desired. The sets are also nice to look at (mostly); but they are nothing special.

But for all the shortcomings the performances and sets of Aladdin provide, the true atrocity of the show lies in its book. The story, by Chad Beguelin (Elf, The Wedding Singer) provides some promise in Act I, which is fun and lighthearted. But Act II quickly decimates any spark of enjoyment from the show. Instead of using Act I as a springboard to conclude the story and emphasize its moral message, Act II relies on childish humor and ridiculous dialogue that rapidly deteriorates the storyline, making it beyond silly, trite and meaningless. Even the orchestrations by the Disney music God Alan Menken come off as bad. “A Whole New World,” one of my all-time favorite Disney musical numbers, is supported by unbelievably weak instrumentation; and the unnecessarily repetitive lyrics sung by the two leads that give the impression they’re “going through the motions” by the time the song is performed, renders it a miserable failure. Countless times, my partner and I glanced at one another, rolled our eyes, and let out a deep sigh of disappointment in the ever-so-worsening show. I’ve seen countless shows over the years on the Great White Way. So very few I would describe as being completely “disposable” junk. Unfortunately, Aladdin easily earns that unflattering label.

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