Bring Him Home, Jean Valjean's musical plea for young revolutionary Marius's life in the second act of the megamusical Les Misérables, is a prayer to God.
But when Ramin Karimloo – playing the former criminal 24601 in the new Torontofied touring production of the show – begins to sing it, he doesn't clasp his hands together. Instead, he holds them out, palms up, as if in offering.
What Mr. Karimloo then gives us is an octave leap, a jump into a breathtaking falsetto that is a magnificent musical metaphor for Valjean's own path from sinner to saint. It is so pure and piercing and just plain beautiful that it makes this occasionally mixed-up remix of Les Misérables a must-see – or, rather, must-hear. There wasn't a dry ear in the house.
Les Misérables brings home Mr. Karimloo, who grew up in Peterborough and Richmond Hill, back to the land where he first fell in love with musical theatre. He's had a career in exile in London's West End, where he has made a name for himself playing the Phantom (of the opera) in particular. What a gift, an offering, to the audiences of Toronto is his return.
He's a strong actor too – terrifically feral in the prologue when Valjean, released from his years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread (and breaking a window pane, lest we forget), roams around the French countryside, angry and broken until a bishop helps him find his way.
There are plenty of other Canadians, more familiar to audiences here, who impress this stripped-down production that, design-wise, is an odd mix of projections of novelist Victor Hugo's paintings (he's known as a writer for a reason), slightly silly CGI animations, and physical sets that lurch out onto the stage from the wings. Unsurprisingly, there are not one, but two directors credited – Laurence Connor and James Powell.
Quebec's Genevieve Leclerc brings a dash of Céline Dion at her most defiant to Fantine, the factory worker who sings I Dreamed A Dream; her angry, fiercely acted version is a nice change from the weepy woe-is-me versions that abound.
The Thenardiers – the iniquitous innkeepers who take in Fantine's daughter, Cosette – are played with comic verve by Cliff Saunders and Lisa Horner, the latter particularly bringing down the house as she crazily chops up a baguette with a butcher's knife while singing about her husband's shortcomings.
As little Cosette, Saara Chaudry could not be cuter. (She alternates in the role.) As the adult Cosette, Winnipeg's Samantha Hill hits the ridiculously high notes and you don't want to kill her, which is triumph in this little loved role. Melissa O'Neill gives a lovely On My Own as audience favourite Eponine, though her acting is a little unwavering. (The young men aren't quite as exciting: Perry Sherman's Marius is bland; Mark Uhre's Enjolras has a lot of hair.)
Borrowed from Britain, Earl Carpenter has the strong passion for justice – and the jowls – for the role of the relentless Inspector Javert. But he bears the brunt of the bad design choices (set and images are by Matt Kinley), notably when he gets sucked into a ridiculous projected eddy at the end.
Despite its occasional stumbles, though, this production is such a pleasure after Tom Hooper's misguided movie, with its unnecessarily extreme close-ups and karaoke sound mixes. Les Misérables' return to Toronto really benefits from coming after it.
And there's no point running down the musical itself, which critics have accused of being "a lurid Victorian melodrama" since its British premiere in 1985 as if that's a bad thing. (For what it's worth, Hugo's novel wasn't much loved by critics either.) The music matches the material – and out of the mouths of singers the calibre of Mr. Karimloo, it sounds marvellous.