Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, July 23 matinee
When Les Misérables premiered at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1985, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company, reviews were decidedly mixed and the planned transfer to the West End was in doubt.
But queues began to storm the box office. The people had spoken. Nearly 30 years on, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s stirring musical is still running in the West End and has been seen by around 65 million people in 300 cities around the world. (The original Australian production premiered in Sydney in December 1987).
To celebrate the musical’s 25th anniversary, Mackintosh decided to produce a brand new staging of the show with new orchestrations. It’s that version that recently opened at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre – and utterly spectacular it is too, with production values of the highest order.
For the uninitiated, Les Mis is based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Sung-through in operatic fashion, it is epic in its sweep as it tells the story of Jean Valjean, who after serving 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving niece, breaks his parole in order to break free from the shackles of his convict past and lead a reformed life.
Reborn as a pillar of society and a kind man with a strong social conscience, he is hunted down across the years by the unforgiving policeman Javert. Unfolding against a backdrop of terrible inequality and suffering, leading to a student uprising in Paris, the story embraces themes of class struggle, political idealism, love and self-sacrifice.
The original production famously used a revolving stage in order to keep the sprawling action moving fluidly across numerous locations and characters, and across time (1815 to 1832).
The revolve was so much part of the original concept that I wondered what the show would be like without it. But the new staging is superb, with state-of-the technology and dramatic lighting allowing for seamless scene changes.
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with set design by Matt Kinley, substantial scenic elements appear in the blink of an eye, while wonderful, moody projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself help conjure different settings, lend extra atmosphere and create special effects – the convict ship in the opening scene, the underground tunnels of the sewer through which Valjean carries the injured student Marius, and Javert’s jump from the bridge are all brilliantly evoked with projected images.
Paule Constable’s lighting is a vital part of the equation, creating a dark, shadowy world in which white light sculpts the barricades or shines on the dying. The effect is one of painterly chiaroscuro, while the darkness renders many of the scene changes invisible.
Christine Rowland has developed Andreane Neofitou’s original costumes, which add the odd splash of colour to a generally somber palette.
Simon Gleeson is superb as Valjean. His transformation from starving, desperate convict to respected gentleman and loving father to Cosette is brilliantly done and he ages convincingly, helped by the costuming and wigs. As for his singing he is in glorious voice, nowhere more so than with a sublime, heartbreaking rendition of Bring Him Home.
Hayden Tee is his match as the implacable Javert, turning in a commanding performance vocally and dramatically as he stalks the stage, ramrod straight, exuding a powerful intensity.
Patrice Tipoki finds all the broken-hearted fragility in the destitute Fantine, her lovely voice soaring with a spine-tingling belt. Kerrie Anne Greenland is also a knockout as the streetwise Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius yet feisty to the last.
Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin (covering for the injured Lara Mulcahy) are hilarious as the inn-keeping Thenardiers. Both have powerful pipes and a sure-fire sense of comedy, providing welcome relief from the darkness of the rest of the story. The way Barron Martin attacks a baguette while dismissing her husband’s manhood, or tilts her head coquettishly when Valjean appears to rescue the young Cosette is priceless, while Ashley brings a wicked gleefulness to Thenardier’s underhand shenanigans. Together they are a grotesquely funny double act.
Euan Doidge has a sweet but fairly light voice, which in this vocal company sounds a bit underpowered, but he is endearing as Marius, coming across as a boyish innocent in the first flush of first love. And he sings Empty Chairs at Empty Tables beautifully.
Chris Durling as Enjolras and Emily Langridge as Cosette don’t yet radiate all the charisma they might but their performances will doubtless grow, and the ensemble is fierce.
From the very opening bars, this new production lifts you up and sweeps you along. The combined power of the story, lyrics and music, complemented by splendid staging and performances, is dramatically thrilling and deeply moving. By the end, I was undone emotionally – and I was not alone.
Les Misérables is currently booking until November 9 in Melbourne. It opens in Perth on January 13 and then in Sydney in March.