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'Miserables' Opens To Mixed Reviews

March 14, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

"Les Miserables" opened on Broadway Thursday night to a celebrity audience that included Claus von Bulow, Mayor Edward I. Koch and Dr. Ruth. They cheered.

The critics sort of cheered.

It's one of those shows that reviewers have second thoughts about even as they're writing. On the one hand, Clive Barnes of the New York Post called it "magnificent, red-blooded, two-fisted theater" that, like the Grand Canyon, "lives up to its hype."

On the other hand he found the score monotonous, the book full of "brutish drama and tear-stained sentiment" and the show in general "instantly disposable trash."

Ah, but "superbly served"-- that made the difference. Barnes thought that Trevor Nunn's and John Caird's staging had provided "a wonderful human pageant" and that John Napier's design supplied images "as unforgettable as a Gustave Dore engraving."

Howard Kissel of the Daily News was inclined not to cheer. He found the score "drivel" and the evocation of Paris at the barricades not very evocative. It reminded him of the Monarch Notes version of Victor Hugo's novel.

Yet he had to admit that the show did offer "the kind of spectacle American theatergoers have not seen in a long time . . . it is easy for the audience to lose itself in another world."

Frank Rich of the New York Times produced the most single-minded review. He loved it. He thought the show combined the best traditions of the Jerome Robbins Broadway musical and the Royal Shakespeare Company's classical productions, particularly "Nicholas Nickleby." (Barnes had said that, where "Nicholas" was steak, this was hamburger.)

" 'Les Miserables' may be lavish," Rich wrote, "but its palette, like its noblest characters, is down-to-earth--dirty browns and cobblestone grays, streaked by David Hersey with the smoky light that filters down to the bottom of the economic heap. The proletarian simplicity of the design's style masks an incredible amount of theatrical sophistication."

Everybody admired Colm Wilkinson's performance as Jean Valjean. (Rich called him "an actor of pugilistic figure and dynamic voice, Christlike without being cloying.") There was disagreement as to whether the American supporting cast outpointed the original London cast, but nobody thought the locals were far behind.

"If spectacle is what the people want, 'Les Miserables' delivers," said a subhead on Kissel's review. Apparently it is. The show has an $11-million advance sale, twice as much as "Cats" had.

Broadway's next spectacle opens Sunday--"Starlight Express," also staged by Trevor Nunn and engineered by John Napier. We'll have a report in Monday's Times.

A musical about a man who undergoes a sex-change operation may not be something people want to see. The New York critics certainly weren't entertained by David Hare's and Nick Bicat's "The Knife" at the Public Theatre.

Douglas Watt of the Daily News found it, among other things, "humorless." Frank Rich found it, and Mandy Patinkin's performance, "gloomy." Variety said: "David Hare needs to lighten up."

What we need is a fun musical on this topic.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK. Actress Joan Greenwood, 1921-1987: "Now that I'm an old hag, I get to play much more interesting parts."

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