Ramin Karimloo

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Tuesday 1 March saw the first night of John Owen-Jones as Jean Valjean in Broadway’s Les Mis.  As with the first nights of the previous incumbents of the role, our intrepid New York reporter, Roberta Kappus was there and I’m thrilled to bring you her review:

Years of experience on the stage were in evidence  as John Owen-Jones took over the role of Jean Valjean on Broadway. From an unrepentant convict to a dying old man, John Owen-Jones gave a masterful performance conveying  feelings and emotions flawlessly.  By a shrug of a shoulder or an added inflection on a word John changed the focus of a scene. From the beginning his skills were apparent.

On his first day of freedom when Valjean drinks from a stream you can see and feel  his sensation of release and satisfaction at the cool taste of the water. He pauses and savours both the freedom and the water and lets you feel it with him.  Most impressive was Who Am I.  John doesn’t just struggle with the question of turning himself in as another has been mistakenly identified as JVJ but  conveys the life and death consequences of his decision and includes the audience in the process. The closest I could come to this portrayal was seeing JVJ as an attorney who strongly believes in his client’s case and the audience is his jury. He strides back and forth across the front of the stage facing the audience, stretching out his arms as though to embrace the audience. It is very effective and as an audience member you feel involved.

Another striking element in his performance is the aging of JVJ. This starts almost at the beginning when he rescues the man from the runaway cart. It is not an easy task and John is winded and out of breath following the rescue. It continues through his first scene in Paris where he is no longer strong enough to fend off the thugs. In his scenes at home with Cosette his shoulders are rounded and his stride is no longer as strong and sure as in the beginning. The aging continues through his final scene when he is truly a feeble, old man. After the show I went back and read the interview with John on this blog (click here). John described his interpretation of the aging exactly as he acted it. It was masterful and no doubt came from John’s years of experience.

Les Mis is a show that is sung throughout and John does not disappoint. I almost feel as though I do not have to say anything about his singing since he is so well known through his albums and YouTube. He was excellent and his singing appeared to be effortless. Throughout he changed the impact of a line in a song by an added inflection on a word. His Bring Him Home was not only sung but also acted. His hands were clasped in prayer as he pleaded with God. He directed God’s gaze to Marius as though God was a presence on the stage.  The acting definitely strengthened the emotional impact of the song.

I have been fortunate enough to see three Jean Valjeans over the last few months – Ramin Karimloo, Alfie Boe and John Owen-Jones. Each brings his own interpretation to the role and emphasises his strengths. Each makes Les Mis his own story and each has been worth seeing.  If you have the chance, you should see John Owen-Jones in the role.

Yet another fabulous review, Roberta – thank you.  As it has been your privilege to see these three performers, it has been my pleasure and privilege to publish such gifted reviews from you.

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On the eve of the 30th anniversary of Les Miserables in London, let’s take a look at 26 highlights and facts from Alfie to Miz!

A is for Alfie Boe of course! Alfie played the role in the West End for six months, having first taken the role at the 25th anniversary concert, and is now Jean Valjean on Broadway

B is for bread.  JVJ is jailed for stealing a loaf of bread but the onstage bread was once responsible for almost choking Dan Koek! Whilst pretending to eat the bishops’s bread, a crumb went up Koek’s nose and lodged at the back of his throat…and stayed there for the whole of the soliloquy!

C is for Carrie Hope Fletcher. London’s current Eponine, is the younger sister of McBusted’s Tom Fletcher…who appeared with Alfie at the Royal Festival Hall on the Bring Him Home tour

D is for Do You Hear the People Sing? We can and we can’t imagine ever stopping!

E  is for Eponine, brilliant character – surely, I can’t be the only one rooting for her over Cosette in Marius’ affections?

F is for Frances Ruffelle, original Eponine, winner of a Tony award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and mum of singer Eliza Doolittle

G is for Grantaire, a glorious character who spends most of his time onstage in an alcoholic glaze

H is for Hans Peter Janssen, the only Belgian actor to play JVJ in London

I is for I Dreamed a Dream, iconic song from Fantine, memorably performed by Lea Salonga at the 25th anniversary concert.  Went into the entertainment stratosphere with Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent audition

J is for John Owen-Jones, the youngest Jean Valjean (he was 26).  He most memorable Les Mis moment came in rehearsal with Claude-Michel Schonberg for the 25th anniversary tour.  John says “I was rehearsing Bring Him Home with Claude-Michel in a room backstage at the Barbican. We were running through the song when he suddenly stopped playing the piano and looked slowly around the room with a quizzical look on his face. Then he looked at me and said in that wonderful French accent of his: “Wait…zis room…it is where I wrote zis song!”

K is for Karrie, Peter who played JVJ for three years from 1986.  In a recent interview he told me that he worked with one Javert who made him corpse one day at the end of the cart scene: “he clicked his heels together and turned to walk off, his microphone was already off, and he said so only I could hear, if you don’t have that cart moved, I’ll have it clamped!  I laughed so much I had to feign a coughing fit and run off stage quickly!

L is for Lea Salonga who played Eponine in the 10th anniversary concert and Fantine in the 25th anniversary

M is for Mackintosh, Cameron, the producer of Les Mis as well as many more musicals around the world

N is for Norm Lewis, picked as his favourite Javert by Alfie Boe in his Club 24601 interview with thoughtsofjustafan

O is for One Day More – best ending to a first act in musical theatre bar none (the combination of Michael Ball and Ramin Karimloo is superb here):

P is for Peter Lockyer, current London JVJ –  first played JVJ whilst directing an amateur production in Hawaii

Q is for the Queen’s Theatre, home to the London production

R is for revolving stage, no longer in evidence in the Broadway show.  Dave Willetts remembers several shows in the early days where the stage stopped revolving at awkward moments, notably at the end of the barricade scene when all the dead actors had to get up and walk off stage in the full glare of the lights!

S is for the Soliloquy, favourite song of several of the Club 24601 JVJ’s

T is for Thenardier – a villain we love to love

U is for understudies – Dave Willetts understudied for Colm Wilkinson before taking over the lead when Wilkinson originated the role on Broadway

V is for Valjean, one of the most iconic roles in modern musicals and the Valjean Quartet from the 25th anniversary:

W is for writers, Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer

X is for Enjolras’ xylophone vest at the barricades (trust me, it’s real) – big thanks to Debbie Bannigan for telling me!

Y is for young performers – Little Eponine, Little Cosette and Gavroche

Z is for Miz which is the twitter spelling for the Broadway production

 

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Last night, 1 September, saw the hotly anticipated first night of Alfie Boe’s run in the Broadway production of Les Mis.  Alfie’s previous incarnation as Jean Valjean in London four years ago led to a frenzy of speculation about his possible involvement when the show’s revival was announced a couple of years later; this frenzy dampened slightly when the role went to Ramin Karimloo but never really went away, hence the levels of excitement when it was announced earlier this year that Alfie would take over from Ramin.

Many Alfie fans are going to see him in New York (click here for his current schedule), probably booking to see the show several times, and one such fan was there last night.  Roberta reviewed Les Mis for thoughtsofjustafan when it first opened and she has been kind enough to review Alfie’s first night for us:

Perfection or as close as you can humanly come to perfection is the only way to describe Alfie Boe’s opening night performance in Les Mis Broadway. Alfie seemed a little bit nervous at the very beginning but that quickly passed. When he first came on stage I was very conscious that I was seeing Alfie Boe as Jean Valjean and that in itself was exciting but that quickly passed; at the end of the show I realised that at some point (I think when Alfie made his first appearance as mayor) I was no longer thinking in those terms. Instead I was watching Jean Valjean and not someone playing JVJ. It was an incredible performance.
Of course I expected the singing to be extraordinary and Alfie did not disappoint. He nailed every song and received a standing ovation for Bring Him Home. What took me by surprise was the absolutely brilliant acting. I was lucky enough to have front row seats and could see every expression crossing his face and there were many. From the anger at the injustice of his imprisonment to the tenderness displayed in the scene when he takes Cosette away. This scene touched me the most. Alfie was truly a father looking at his daughter and rejoicing in the life that would now be theirs. When he picked her up it was not just to dance with her. He tossed her in the air twice and caught her both times. And the expression on Alfie’s face can only be described as a father looking with great love at his daughter. I wish I could have filmed that and replayed it here. It has to be seen.
Alfie received a well deserved standing ovation at the end. He blew a kiss to the audience, heaved a sigh of relief, struck his chest 3 times in appreciation and then collapsed to his knees.
Thank you for that wonderful review Roberta.  Twitter has been awash with compliments – it’s fair to say that all of them were of the same opinion as Roberta.  Amongst the many tweets were photos of Alfie at the stage door with fans and my favourite is from Carla, who looks absolutely delighted to be there:
alfie carla
and here is Alfie in the white shirt!
alfie les mis
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The Welsh husband and wife composers, Dan and Laura Curtis (who are expecting the arrival of their first baby very soon) have just released their first short musical concept written especially for the big screen. Based on the Disney / Pixar animation, Ratatouille, the unofficial video (made using fair use exception of US copyright laws) showcases their talents and announces their intention to move into the world of film composing in the future.

The music very much draws on the big screen musical style that we all know and features a full orchestra and a number of up and coming musical theatre artists, most of which have already featured on the London stage.

I spoke to Dan and Laura earlier this week and asked what drove the making of this video. In reply, they said that they had always been big Disney fans and one of their song writing dreams was to work with Disney. With this in mind, they were keen to show what their creative vision would have been, had they been given the task of writing music for a Disney film. In addition, many of their fans are also Disney fans and have been asking for something like this for some time now. So far, the response from those fans has been rapturous, with the video being shared multiple times across social media sites and receiving over 29,000 views since it’s release this week.

Dan and Laura’s work until now has been as award winning composers, producers and record label owners. Their most recent album Love on 42nd Street topped the UK and US iTunes vocal and Amazon Broadway charts and featured theatre legends such as Lea Salonga, Ramin Karimloo, Sierra Boggess, John Owen-Jones and Samantha Barks. Recent single releases with Laura Osnes and Cheyenne Jackson both topped the iTunes vocal chart.

Whatever happens with this musical concept video, (the video has been sent to Disney and Dan and Laura are hopeful that it will gain a positive response) Dan and Laura would like to move into the world of film and TV composition – and with their track record of making things happen, I wouldn’t bet against them. See the video here:

Love on 42nd Street is available here:

42nd street

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Steve Young is a hugely experienced musician whose music I was first introduced to through the photographer Nikki Lewis.  On delving deeper, I realised I had heard him before, playing in Ramin Karimloo’s Broadgrass band.  In fact, Steve has worked with a range of artists as varied as Lionel Richie, Delta Goodrem and Darren Hayes of Savage Garden.

Whilst Steve’s work with Lionel Richie, Delta Goodrem and Peter Andre was largely confined to TV work, his work with Hayes was much more significant, touring, recording and writing over a five year period.  The opening track on Hayes’ 2012 album, Secret Codes & Battleships, was co-written by Steve.  In a recent radio interview, Steve credited Hayes with allowing him the freedom to explore the writing side of his career.  A spell working with producer Tony Nicholls saw some 60-70 songs written; apparently, a few can be heard regularly on the Australian TV soap Home and Away.

Following this successful collaboration Steve joined up with West End star Ramin Karimloo for another successful joint venture.  A mini tour in the US saw the band named Best Live Act 2013 by Broadway World.

So, after a lifetime of collaborations and support, Steve finally had the opportunity this year to write for himself.  Working on cruise ships gave him a lot of free time and stimulated the creative juices because his debut EP, Little Things is released on 31 October.

As a whole, the songs on the EP are driven by strong guitars (unsurprisingly in a a career guitarist!) and largely upbeat melodies.  The years spent honing his craft and working with other artists show in the fabulous harmonies on Beautiful Child in particular.  The backing singer, Gemma, has a fabulous voice and I hope to hear more from her in the future.

Wholeheartedly in Love is my stand out track – I couldn’t keep from dancing when I first played it and that hasn’t changed.  It may be one of my favourite tracks of 2014. The title track, Little Things, shows a talented lyricist although this is evident throughout all five songs.

If you like a strong guitar driven song, then Little Things will be right up your street.

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What is the name of the song co-written by Steve and Darren Hayes on the 2012 album Secret Codes & Battleships?

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From the moment that it was announced that Les Miserables would return to Broadway, speculation  was rife as to who would be cast as Jean Valjean.  Following his amazing success as Valjean in the 25th anniversary concert at the 02, many fans of the show were keen to see Alfie Boe cast.  Social media was awash with fans showing the love for Alfie in this role, even after Alfie told fans that he was officially finished with Les Mis.  Indeed, this continued, in a lesser vein right up until it was announced that Ramin Karimloo would play the role.  Ramin had already played the role to great acclaim in London and Toronto and it was generally felt that he was a good choice.  In addition, he played a fabulous Enjolras in the 25th annviersary concert at the 02 in London (click here).

Roberta Kappus, a fellow Alfie fan, saw the Broadway Les Mis last month and kindly consented to review it (beware, there are spoilers so don’t read if you don’t want to know!):

I saw Les Mis a week after opening night and again last week and I did not want it to end. It is wonderful and Ramin Karimloo as Jean Valjean is wonderful. Both the show and Karimloo received high praise from the critics and both totally deserved it. As I write this Karimloo has been nominated for Best Actor and Les Mis for Best Musical Revival by both  the Drama League and the Tony (US Olivers) Awards.

From the beginning you know you are not going to be seeing the production currently running at the Queen’s theatre or the last production on Broadway. The prisoners are on benches with oars. This is perhaps a nod to the original work and/or to the movie. And, the turntable is gone. This is a great improvement. The cast moves more freely and naturally throughout the performance. There is a new orchestration which I did not notice at the time as I was too engrossed in the performance. It was only later at home listening to the original score that I realized some movements were missing or had been changed.

To me the most obvious change with this new production was the physicality involved in a number of the scenes. The Confrontation is no longer a scene with Valjean and Javert feigning threatening actions. Instead the fighting with realistic punches and wrestling moves results in one or the other of the actors being thrown to the stage floor with neither missing a beat of the song. It is amazing that they are not totally out of breath just from the fighting.  At the barricade, Valjean and Javert do not just spar verbally but physically as well. At one point Javert is slammed against a theatre wall at the front of the stage by Valjean. The physicality is not confined to the principals but appears a few other times throughout the production. Because of the intensity of the fighting and to prevent injuries there is a “fight call” before every performance where safety precautions are reviewed with the cast.

Another of the changes in the staging that I thought was very effective was the scene following the sewer escape where the chorus sings “Did You See Them Going Off to Fight.”   The stage is darkened and each member of the chorus carries a candle in a jar onto the stage. When the song is finished the candles are left on the stage. Marius comes out and begins “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”, the students and Gavroche appear. As the students and Gavroche leave the stage each takes a candle. It comes across as a very emotional scene.

What is important is that the story flows, the music seems to be as I remembered it and the singing especially by Ramin Karimloo is excellent, stunning, more than outstanding. While Mr. Karimloo is probably better known to the readers of this blog, it is Mr. Swenson who is better known by the New York audiences for his performances in Hair and Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Mr. Karimloo is considered a Broadway rookie. However, that did not dampen the critics’ enthusiasm for his opening night performance. It was called “sterling” by the New York Times which further noted that the highlight of the performance and the production was Mr. Karimloo’s rendition of Bring Him Home. Another critic wrote that Karimloo’s singing of Bring Him Home brought the production to a higher level. I can only agree. Karimloo was incredible and deserves all the praise he has received. Prior to this I had only seen Karimloo at a club in New York performing Broadgrass – his term for a combination of Broadway and blue grass – which does not prepare you for his performance here. I have to admit that I was totally blown away by Karimloo’s performance in Les Mis. As a side note, it was not only the singing that some of the NY reviews appreciated. Mr. Karimloo has been working out in preparation for the role and has developed a fine set of abs. This led to the headline “Brawny ballad singer Ramin Karimloo leading Les Miz”.

Of the rest of the cast, there was no one who did not perform well. Cliff Saunders as Thenardier does deserve mention. I thought he was the best Thenardier I have seen. (I did not see Matt Lucas live in this role.) He also played the role in the Canadian production. He brings a slightly different twist to the part. I spoke to him at the stage door after one of the performances and he said that he had not seen Les Mis when he got the role and deliberately did not see it after so that he could bring his own interpretation to the role.

Les Mis on Broadway is an incredible experience. Ramin Karimloo is absolutely outstanding as Jean Valjean. His performance is breathtaking. Will Swenson is excellent as Javert. If you are going to be in New York this is well worth seeing. I know I will be seeing it again.

A fabulous review from Roberta!  As a side note, Roberta also mentioned that at the two performances she attended the whole cast including little Cosette and Gavroche came out, signed autographs, posed for pictures and thanked people for coming.   Ramin has also be doing a video blog for fans, or a vlog, take a look at the first one:

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