A savvy and stylish update, and superb cast gives this 35-year-old musical a new lease of life.
It’s arguably one of the most popular, and ubiquitous musicals in the world, with productions packing houses (and earning Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh millions) from London’s West End to New York’s Broadway. Now, after delighting audiences in Melbourne and Perth, it’s Sydney’s turn to host the latest incarnation of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, currently on an Australia tour, and a capacity crowd, peppered with celebrities, turned out for the glitzy opening performance at the Capitol Theatre.
In 2010 after 30 unbroken years, Trevor Nunn’s original vision for the musical was retired, and a reimagined production, including a new orchestration, has spent the past five years being fine-tuned and perfected. After three decades, even with a facelift, I was dubious about how much more this show could offer. However this taut, briskly paced new version not only affirms why this musical still has the power to captivate and move audiences the world over, but also delivers some surprising new perspectives on this well trodden tale, thanks to James Powell’s largely savvy direction.
Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulcahy
Gone is the grand revolving set of John Caird and Nunn’s original, replaced with Matt Kinley’s more dynamic and fleet-footed staging, using a versatile card-deck of trundled set panels and an ingeniously envisioned projected backdrop. This clever digital addition to the production offers an insightful echo of the expressionist watercolours of Victor Hugo’s mid-nineteenth century France, while giving the action a cinematically epic world to exist in, particularly in the second act’s sewer scenes. Christopher Jahnke, Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker’s new orchestration is another shrewd update, featuring flashes of almost Sondheim-level invention with its canny use of exotic percussion and intelligent period instrument references. Through some fresh-thinking and skilled handling even some of this musical’s most hackneyed numbers, such as Castle on a Cloud, feel pleasingly rejuvenated, and under the baton of Musical Director Geoffery Castles, the momentum of the performance maintains an exhilarating pace, despite the three-hour running time.
The almost unanimously impressive cast for this Australian tour, including a superb supporting ensemble, boasts some world-class performers among its ranks, although there are a couple of weak links in this otherwise very strong chain. Simon Gleeson’s Jean Valjean is a dynamo of dramatic magnetism; the muscular, yet excitingly volatile quality of his vocal performance allowing him to move convincingly from savagely brutalised convict, to stately, honourable mayor, through to world-weary father figure. Hayden Tee, whose account of the mindlessly driven Javert was an ideal mix of steely determination and crazed obsession, matched Gleeson’s high-calibre performance with an ironclad onstage chemistry that crackled with a ferociously compelling intensity. Patrice Tipoki’s Fantine was also expertly realised and beautifully sung, although the nimble pace of this production doesn’t offer much time to feel invested in her tragic demise.
Kerrie Anne Greenland
Another inspired pairing were Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulcahy, who often stole the show with their brash and bawdy renditions of Thénardier and his inn-keeper wife. However, while it’s hard to fault their flawless comic delivery, they could barely stop themselves from stealing focus whenever on stage, which occasionally smeared the narrative purpose of a few scenes. These two characters are more than simply clowns: they have a disturbingly sinister undercurrent (most notably in Thénardier’s Harvest Moon solo in the second act), and this might have benefitted from a soupçon less pantomime and a more judicious use of slapstick to allow room for some more menace.
Emily Langridge’s Cosette and Euan Doidge’s Marius took a little while to bloom, and while their burgeoning relationship had the awkward charm of a first love, it sadly felt very light on believable passion. However, for me, the standout performance of the evening is also one of the most modest principal roles. Despite being one of the least experienced members of the cast, Kerrie Anne Greenland’s Éponine was astonishing, both for her dramatic potency and vocal accomplishment. As the ragged, romantically overlooked, street-smart daughter of the Thénardiers, Greenland’s emotionally devastating performance felt truly significant. I urge you to remember her name; this could well be the birth of Australia’s next big musical theatre star.
Maxim Boon is a composer, writer and critic currently living and working in Sydney, Australia. Born in Cambridge in the UK, Maxim studied composition at the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music from the age of 14 before achieving his BMus (hons) undergraduate degree from the Royal Academy of the Music in London and his Post Graduate degree from the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester. His award-winning music has been played throughout Europe and Australia including commissions for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, The London Symphony Orchestra, The BBC Singers, The Fidelio Trio, the Arditti Quartet and the London Sinfonietta. He has been a featured composer at the Spitalfields Festival, the Cheltenham Festival, Vault Festival, In-Transit Festival and Sydney Fringe Festival, and at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. He is currently a Soundhub Resident Artist with London Symphony Orchestra and a Britten-Pears Resident Artist. Maxim is the Online Editor of Limelight Magazine.