— Production photo
Les Mis again? Really? Do we really need another run of Les Misérables?
Sure, Hamlet is back at Bard on the Beach this summer but it’s only about the third Hamlet we’ve seen here in a decade. This is the fourth staging of Les Mis in Vancouver since 2004 (two earlier touring shows and an Arts Club production). Plus, of course, the recent movie.
And Les Mis is hardly the Hamlet of musicals. Or is it?
Jean Valjean is one of the most deeply introspective characters in the musical pantheon (“Who Am I?” is his key song), and in pursuing him, Inspector Javert is as obsessive as the Danish prince. I’d also argue that Les Mis ranks near the very top of its genre with a great story, rich characters and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s fantastic score that absolutely demands excellent singers.
So no, Broadway Across Canada’s production currently at the Queen E isn’t too much Les Mis too soon. Especially for fans like me. But even the doubters, or those who think they’ve seen Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway do it so why bother again, will find a gorgeous, stirring, beautifully sung show that amply repays repeat viewing.
Peter Lockyer’s Jean Valjean and Andrew Varela’s Javert, the show’s principals, are well matched vocally and physically. Lockyer has a slighter build but makes up for it with tightly coiled, explosive energy. He shows the anger of a man who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and is still being persecuted, as well as the self-loathing of someone who knows deep down that he deserves it all. And Lockyer gives full value to Valjean’s best songs, especially his duet with the dying Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc) and “Bring Him Home,” his exquisite prayer to save the life of wounded Marius (Devin Ilaw), his adopted daughter’s beloved.
The rich voices of both Leclerc and Varela unfortunately have to battle an orchestral sound mixed too loudly in their key solos, Fantine’s iconic “I Dreamed a Dream” and Javert’s “Stars.” “This I swear,” Varela booms out at the end of “Stars,” but I couldn’t hear what he was swearing about.
The love triangle of Marius, Cosette (Julie Benko) and Éponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman) benefits from wonderful singing, and the despicable comic duo of innkeeper Thénardier (Timothy Gulan) and his wife (Shawna M. Hamic) are audience favourites as usual, deservedly so. Watch Hamic, a big, powerful woman, take a cleaver to a phallic French bread during the raucous “Master of the House.” Ouch.
The show’s secondary plotline, the 1832 Paris uprising, features strong choruses on the barricade anthems “One Day More” and “The People’s Song,” the latter also sung in solidarity this week by the protesters in Istanbul’s Taksim Square as life imitates art–though let’s hope not in the outcome of their protests. Enjolras, the leader of the doomed student rebels, is sung magnificently in this production by Jason Forbach.
One notable difference between this production and those we’ve seen here before is the marvelous work of scenic and image designer Matt Kinley, in tandem with Paule Constable’s highly dramatic lighting design. Although the show still relies heavily on large, mobile set pieces to establish its many different locations, Kinley complements them with striking projections.
His palette of mostly black and gray creates gloomy backdrops evocative of Goya etchings, sometimes morphing into deep, fiery reds. His projection of the sewers through which Valjean drags and carries Marius is a magical conjuring of remarkable three-dimensional effects. The only effect that doesn’t work–a too showy combination of lighting, projection and rigging–is Javert’s suicidal leap.
Never mind. By the finale, when all the virtuous dead return to the stage to reprise “One Day More,” I was sobbing. And hoping the next Vancouver production of Les Mis won’t be too long in coming.