If we need a reason for yet-another revival of "Les Miserables" -- and I'm afraid some of us do -- the answer reveals itself in the first scene and stays riveting until the strenuous three-hour epic's final moments.
The reason is Ramin Karimloo. This Iranian-born, Canadian-raised, rising star from London galvanizes the newly staged production with a portrayal of Jean Valjean that might cause both the Miz-weary and the Miz-averse to soften some resistance.
In fact, this smartly cast "Les Miz," directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, has clearer, tighter storytelling and less bombast than the internationally celebrated 1987 original. The new sets, without the famous turntable, are basically dark, painted flats and videos that must facilitate touring, which this production, not surprisingly, has been doing.
But nothing in this return of the Victor Hugo popera has the musty feel of the road. The chorus has been impeccably drilled and, except for a few ragged voices at the barricades, the whores, beggars and ruffians of pre-revolutionary France keep a fine balance between robust singing and acting. And speaking of real finds, Gaten Matarazzo, who played little Gavroche at the preview I saw, is a star.
And then there is Karimloo, whose Valjean evolves from a feral, hotheaded convict into a dashing, dignified hero without a shadow of Hugh Jackman from the 2012 movie on his brow. Karimloo's voice has a rare purity and focus and, though we would expect his low tenor to strain for the stratospheric notes in "Bring Him Home," he even finds the finesse and stamina to be tender in it.
Will Swenson plays angry and serious without being genuinely imposing as Javert, the investigator obsessed with recapturing his nemesis. The character is not a perfect fit for this multifaceted charmer who first became a star as Berger in "Hair." The songs fall a bit low for Swenson's high baritone, which limits the dramatic contrast between the voices of the two antagonists. This Javert seems too introspective to generate scary shivers throughout the decades.
On the other evil front, however, Cliff Saunders makes an extraordinary mean elf as the innkeeper Thenardier. As his wife, Keala Settle toys impressively with the line between cruel and just horridly coarse.
Nikki M. James shows vast range in her a touching, street-wise Eponine, with a lush yet piercing voice. Caissie Levy makes a poignant Fantine, though she sounded a bit rough in "I Dreamed a Dream," while Samantha Hill keeps the soubrette saccharine to a minimum as Valjean's ward, Cosette.
For those of us in the minority, "Les Miz" remains Masterpiece Musical at its most earnest, marred by cumulative bellowing and politics so fuzzy-edged that they never get beyond a generic storm-the-barricades fervor. But if we need to have "Les Miz" -- and obviously, we do -- I pick this one.
WHAT "Les Miserables"
WHERE Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St.
BOTTOM LINE Dazzling Ramin Karimloo as Valjean in smart restaging