Les Misérables has been rousing audiences to their feet all around the world for more than 30 years. I remember listening to the 6-album vinyl records over and over because the music was just so powerful, before even watching the show. I believe it was my first taste of music theatre and experience of the power it can hold. Since then, I have seen the show a few times, been in it a couple more, and taught songs from Les Mis as a staple to many beginner-singing students.
For its 30th anniversary, Les Miserables received a few tweaks. Most noticeably is the set redesign by Matt Kinley, bringing the show into the digital age. The huge (and hugely famous) revolve centre stage has been replaced with sliding sets and screen projections as the backdrop, using the writer’s (Victor Hugo) own paintings and drawings as well as 19th Century French photography. The digital highlight was the opening scene special effects (by Fifty-Nine Productions) with animated projections overlaying a scrim, invoking the water splashing against the bow of the tall ship while the convicts rowed – just magical. The underground sewer scene with the moving background perspective, complemented by Mick Potter’s soundscape, was also especially effective; for me, the final moments of Javert’s soliloquy ufortunately weren’t as visually successful.
The other major change was the ramped up-tempo (conducted by Geoffrey Castles) and re-orchestrated score, with more use of sprechgesang than the more well known interpretation of the score. While some in the crowd pointed out the galloping pace as a negative change, (which may have been intended to accommodate for the i-generation who may find it hard to sit through a three-hour musical) I didn’t mind so much and I don’t think the GP did either. However, there were a couple of the classic lines in the show that you just don’t want to mess around with. Doing so loses the power and the passion behind the lyric.
Simon Gleeson joins the ranks of top performers in the leading role of Jean Valjean with a heart-felt portrayal, garnering him the prestigious Helpmann Award for Best Male Actor in a Musical this year. He showed not only a great power and command of the stage, but an exceptional tenderness, especially in the moving prayer ‘Bring Him Home’. A consummate performer and crowd favourite.
The crowd is also very much behind Hayden Tee as Javert, who was recently honoured with a Green Room Award for his portrayal of Valjean’s nemesis. Both performers were equally matched onstage, with their power struggle palpable for the audience.
Chris Durling is expectedly charismatic as Enjolras, the student leader of the revolution. He also has a strong stage presence and has the vocal chops to match.
Patrice Tipoki as Fantine also joins Les Mis royalty as she was also nominated for a Helpmann Award for her performance, and has recently announced that she will be replacing Fantine on London’s West End stage.
Especially enjoyable was Kerrie Anne Greenland’s understated portrayal of Eponine. Always in the shadows, we felt the weight of her heartache and wished for a brighter future for the unjust hand she was dealt.
Of course the much-needed comic relief created by the bawdy Thenardiers (Lara Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley) were a vulgar delight in every scene. The pair really made the roles their own, bringing their own brand of outrageously offensive behaviour to the stage.
Lastly, the ensemble in their many guises as beggars, students, factory workers, and prostitutes are to be commended on their dedicated performances and flawless choral work.
International directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, along with set designer Matt Kinley and lighting designer Paule Constable, have created a stunning new production with flawless casting; the extended standing ovation at curtain call was absolutely deserved.
Testament to the success of the new rendering, the production scooped the pool at the 2015 Helpmann Awards winning in 5 categories including Best Musical, Best Male Actor in a Musical, Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role in a Musical, Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design.
Les Miserables plays QPAC’s Lyric Theatre through January 17.