Les Miserables is the show that made me fall in love with musicals. I don’t remember if it’s the first show I ever saw, but it’s definitely the one I’ve seen the most. I grew up with the 10th Anniversary Concert DVD in the days before DVRs, when if there was nothing on TV, we would pop in Les Miz. I listened to the soundtrack (on cassette tape!) on repeat for years, and even had to dig out the tape player after Tom Hooper’s movie version came out. Growing up, I never thought anyone would ever come close to Colm Wilkinson’s Valjean, but when I saw the Les Miz revival last spring, Ramin Karimloo made me question my undying belief in the magic of Wilkinson.
Les Miz is the kind of show that can do no wrong in my eyes, but the vocal prowess of Karimloo made me want to return to the show immediately after seeing it. When my cousin suggested going to Karimloo’s last show, I was immediately on board. I was nervous how the untimely death of Kyle Jean-Baptiste would affect Karimloo’s last performance (it was also the last show for Samantha Hill, who has also been in the show since the beginning in Toronto with Karimloo, and Erika Henningsen) and the show as a whole, but I think they found a good balance. The show is an emotional rollercoaster to begin with, and certain moments had extra weight in light of the tragedy. “Bring Him Home,” had an additional intensity as you think about Karimloo singing about being willing to die to save the life of a young man who has a life full of promise ahead of him. (Full disclosure: I wept the first time I heard Karimloo sing it in rehearsal footage from Toronto that I watched while browsing the internet, not thinking that the song would affect me given I hadn’t committed two hours on the plot and character development.) Chris McCarrell (a lovely Marius) blew out his candle and pointed up to the heavens at the end of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” in an already heartbreaking performance. And during the curtain call, Karimloo wore a black armband and pointed to the sky, a classy move to acknowledge the passing of his colleague and friend on his own big day.
I’ve never been part of a monumental Broadway performance such as an opening, first day, or last performance before, and given how amazing Karimloo is, it was no surprise that the audience was boisterous and invested in his performance. However, the crowd went wild after every Valjean song, to the point where they covered up Karimloo’s beautiful vibrato as he showed off his incredible breath support. It was disappointing that in the crowd’s excitement, they overpowered Karimloo’s last notes in practically every song. It is also jarring for a prayer-like song like “Bring Him Home” to end in a prolonged standing ovation filled with whoops and cheers. While Karimloo was certainly deserving of that, it’s odd to have such a quiet reflective scene met with such boisterous applause. Also if given the chance, why wouldn’t you want to hear every second of the voice of an angel?
The entire cast was extraordinary, and it’s a shame that this revival didn’t get to record a cast album. I mostly want it so I can continue listening to Karimloo’s outstanding voice, but the rest of the cast was amazing as well. Gavin Lee was one of the hammiest and funniest Thenardiers I’ve seen, who definitely lifted the mood and brought a lightness that was needed under the tragic circumstances. Brennyn Lark was an incredible Eponine who delivered an amazing “On My Own.” And Wallace Smith in his revolutionary wig reminded me of Mark from The Roots, which was pretty awesome, if slightly jarring.
Karimloo had an extra intensity and urgency to his performance, which made his singing voice all the more lovely. I don’t know how he manages to have such beautiful vibrato and a growl-like intensity within the same song, but he pulls it off with aplomb. And you could tell he was having fun during his final performance when he experienced a blip with the doll he gave Young Cosette. It’s the little moments that make you treasure the beauty of live theater. Karimloo has one of the most extraordinary voices on Broadway today, and when I saw the show last year, I understood why everyone was clamoring to get him to Broadway. In one of the most spectacular Broadway debuts, I was disappointed when he lost the Tony Award to Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which is a role that requires a different kind of intensity and stamina. While Karimloo heads to Japan to continue his musical theater world domination, I truly hope he comes back to Broadway soon. It’s nice to have an Iranian play one of the most beloved leading men in musical theater, and I can’t wait until he treads the boards in New York again.