Review: Karimloo shines as Valjean in 'Les Mis'

The cast of the "Les Miserables" Toronto theatre production is shown in a handout photo. The play was met with rapturous applause during Wednesday night's opening at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Mirvish Productions-Cylla von Tiedemann

TORONTO - Move way over, Hugh Jackman, there's a new Jean Valjean in town — and his performance as the ex-convict seeking redemption in the musical stage adaptation of Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables" may have set a new bar for the role.

Canadian Ramin Karimloo's passionate interpretation of Valjean, sung with a purity of tone that was at times nothing short of magical, was met with rapturous applause during Wednesday night's opening at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre.

And his tender rendition of the signature ballad, "Bring Him Home" — ended with a sustained final note that had audience members holding their collective breaths — brought down the house.

That would likely be no surprise to those who have already seen Karimloo as Valjean, a role he recently played at the Queen's Theatre in London: he won the 2013 Theatregoers' Choice Award for best takeover of a part.

But this is the first time the Richmond Hill and Peterborough, Ont.-raised Karimloo has taken the "Les Mis" lead on a Canadian stage — and with a predominantly Canadian cast for the Mirvish production of Cameron Mackintosh's reworking of the long-beloved Boublil and Schonberg show set in early 19th-century France.

The novel on which it's based follows the life of Jean Valjean, who's spent 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread. Vowing to live a godly life after a priest treats him with unexpected kindness, Valjean breaks his parole and assumes a new identity.

He rescues the child Cosette, after the death of her mother Fantine, and becomes her guardian as she grows into womanhood — all the while pursued by Inspector Javert, the law officer who has vowed to recapture prisoner "24601."

Father and daughter end up in Paris, where a group of students has begun a street-based revolt against the government, pitting themselves against well-trained and well-armed soldiers. Cosette and student Marius fall in love, to the despair of Eponine, who also loves the young man.

For those who saw Jackman as Valjean in last year's visually sweeping film version, which won Anne Hathaway a best supporting actress Oscar for her depiction of Fantine, the stage at the Princess of Wales may seem at first too confined for such an epic story.

But clever staging, including projected backdrops based on Hugo paintings that provide depth and movement to the action onstage, lend the performance an intimacy for the audience that can be missing in larger venues.

Among the glitterati attending the premiere were Canadian actress Shirley Douglas, TV's "Income Property" host Scott McGillivray and Colm Wilkinson, the Irish-born tenor who originated the role of Valjean in the 1985 London production of "Les Mis" and went on to star as the original "Phantom of the Opera" in Toronto.

Earl Carpenter, an English veteran of London's West End, reprises the role of the stiff-necked Javert, his confident bass-baritone providing a rich counterpoint to Karimloo's dulcet tenor tones.

Former "Canadian Idol" winner Melissa O'Neil gives a strong performance both vocally and theatrically as the lovelorn Eponine, imbuing the character with a welcome edginess, while Winnipeg-born soprano Samantha Hill seems to grow into the role of the adult Cosette as the play evolves.

It may have been opening night jitters, but Genevieve Leclerc's rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" as the downtrodden Fantine had a harshness to it, as if the Gatineau, Que., soprano was pushing out the heart-wrenching lyrics rather than letting them flow.

Likewise, New York native Perry Sherman as Marius seemed to struggle with his vocal cords initially, though both he and Leclerc recovered nicely in the second act, delivering their numbers smoothly and with greater confidence.

As the Thenardiers, the rapacious innkeepers and parents of Eponine, veteran Canadian actors Cliff Saunders and Lisa Horner provide both comic relief and a look at the crueller side of humanity. But it is their physical antics — especially Saunders' — rather than their singing voices that will likely make the pair audience favourites.

The 25th-anniversary version of "Les Miserables" has lost none of its poignancy or ability to pull at the heartstrings. And the Toronto production, like its predecessors, will have no trouble lifting spirits and bringing the audience to its feet.