Les Misérables

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Published: 21st January, 2019
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When I was invited to review this production of Les Misérables by the Young Australian Broadway Chorus, I jumped at the chance. Having seen their 2018 production of Wicked, I knew I was in for a real treat. I was not disappointed. As with Wicked, the production values and talent, both on and off stage were clearly evident. It is gratifying to see such a young cast take on a dramatic piece like this and really do it justice.

Victor Hugo’s 1862 classic tells of the struggles of the oppressed and the resilience of the human spirit, despite appalling injustice. In it, they have brought to life the characters and their stories, just like hundreds of casts have before them since the production was first performed in 1980. Originally written by Alain Boubil with music by Claude Michel Schonberg and performed in French, this English language version by Herbert Kretzmer and James Fenton has been reduced considerably from the three-and-a-half hour original. I have viewed this piece as a work of youth theatre, and therefore have not drawn attention to any deficits that are purely due to a performer’s age.

The storyline is driven by the life story of Jean Valjean, a convicted thief, and his nemesis, Inspector Javert, who has vowed to bring him to justice. Although imprisoned for five years for stealing bread, he receives another fourteen years when he tries to escape. When Jean is finally paroled, his papers mark him as a thief and he becomes an outcast. Frustrated, Jean finally destroys his papers and breaks his parole, becoming a fugitive, pursued relentlessly by Javert.

The trials of Jean Valjean are brought to life by Bryce Gibson whose musicality, vocal skills and acting ability are astounding in a performer under 18 years of age. He convincingly plays Valjean over the course of his turbulent life to the very end. Javert is played with righteous self-belief by Nicholas Sheppard, who, like Gibson is completely believable as he ages throughout. There are some outstanding performers in this massive cast. I have counted over a hundred!

After Jean has left prison, he is taken in by the Bishop of Digne. This small part and some others are sung beautifully by Harrison Dart. His rich baritone is strong and sure, and in later scenes as student Fueilly, he shows off some seriously big notes. In his desperation, Valjean steals the Bishop’s silverware and is caught by the police. The Bishop tells the constables that the silverware was a gift and they let him go. This act of kindness makes Jean reconsider his path and he turns his life around.

A period of eight years passes and Jean has become a successful business man, employing many people in his factory. One of them, Fantine, has a secret child, Cosette, born out of wedlock and left in the dubious care of an inn-keeper and his wife. A letter belonging to Fantine is discovered by another girl (sung with venom by Suzannah Bourke), who shows it to the foreman (Tim Bland), whose advances Fantine has spurned. When her secret is discovered, Fantine is turned out into the street. She sells her hair, then her locket and finally her body. The scene, teeming with scores of prostitutes (their leader played by Oriel Forsythe) accompanied by their pimps and clientele, is one of the most confronting and visually dazzling in the entire show. There are so many femme fatales in all shapes and sizes and the costumes designed by Jennifer McKenzie are superb. The same goes for all the costumes. With a large cast, many of whom are playing multiple roles, the smooth functioning of the costume department is crucial. The many costume changes occurred without a hitch, recreating eighteenth century France simply and effectively.

Some cast members have been with the company for over a decade and have accrued a huge amount of training and stage experience, which certainly showed on opening night. Emily Svarnias as Fantine holds the audience in the palm of her hand as she sings the heart-breaking “I Dreamed a Dream”, one of the show’s most famous songs. She plays the part with the right amount of pathos and her vocal colours are perfect for the role.

It’s been decades since I saw a production of Les Misérables and the things I recall most, the core moments of the story are all here in this version. In Act One, the prisoners singing “Look down, look down” in the opening scene, the tragedy of Fantine, Jean’s discovery of Fantine’s daughter Cosette at the Thenardier’s inn and the ensuing “Master of the House” scene are all as I recall. Except that this incarnation has so much youthful energy. Thenardier and Madame Thenardier are played with relish and great comic timing by Jackson Harwood and Madeleine Horsey. The scene was beautifully staged and choreographed by veteran dancer and choreographer Jacqui Green.

The story then moves nine years into the future in Paris. The population is starving in the streets, with students and the down-trodden on the brink of an uprising. Valjean has raised Cosette as his daughter and changed his name again. The adult Cosette is played elegantly by Jasmine Arthur, who sings with an operatic quality that suits the fine young lady Cosette has become. In contrast, the Thenardiers’ daughter, Eponine, once as spoilt as Cosette was neglected, has reappeared as well. Her parents, having lost their inn, now run a gang of thieves, and Eponine, dressed as a boy in rags, is one of them.

She befriends one of the students, Marius, and develops a crush on him. On the street one day, Marius meets Cosette and its love at first sight. The adult Eponine is played with warmth and maturity by Rhea Brendish. This is a performance of truly professional standard, both vocally and dramatically. Marius, portrayed with real sincerity by Ben Gonsalves is unaware of Eponine’s true feelings towards him as he is completely distracted by his love for Cosette.

Act Two opens with the famous barricade scene, where the students and radicals are ready to face the full force of the authorities. A strong performance from Jordie Race-Coldrey as student leader Ejolras really holds the scene together. There is great support from other student characters: Combeferre played by Edward Burgess, Grantaire sung lyrically by Dean Gild and Courfeyrac played with great energy by Chad Rosette. Harrison Dart features again as Feuilly, Scott England as Joly, Amir Yacoub as Prouvaire and Matthew Casamento as Lesgles. When they are joined by Valjean as the battle rages, there is a great deal of action with muskets being loaded and fired, which made the scene very realistic. A pungent pall of gun smoke hung over the stage and was caught in the lighting (designed by Linda Hum) as the heroes fell one by one.

The sets, designed by Dann Barber, are beautiful and ingeniously mobile with scene changes created seamlessly by performers moving on and off stage, bringing buildings and furniture with them. All of this looks fluid and natural to the viewer, but it is the work of director Robert Coates which makes it happen. With a cast of over one hundred, it takes patience, skill and vision to make all the drama and comedy come together to create a cohesive whole. It’s a tribute to everyone involved that this production is so cleverly mounted. The sound design by Marcello Lo Ricco is also worth mentioning. So often, when a cast wears personal mikes, it can be a recipe for disaster, but not in this case. The sound was clear and full, with no distortion or spill from other mikes, and it was carefully monitored to hide unwanted puffing and panting.

The musical direction of this production is remarkable, with a pit orchestra of sixteen players, aged just 16 to 21 years under the baton of Justin Jacobs. With his background of working with choirs and orchestras, Jacobs is able to illicit stunning tight harmony singing from this huge cast and his players. When the full cast sing as one at the end of the final Act, the results of all this hard work is just spine-tingling. The prolonged and enthusiastic standing-ovation showed the company that it was all worth it.

Les Misérables plays an extended season at the National Theatre St. Kilda until January 27.

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Jon Jackson attended the opening night performance at the National Theatre St Kilda on January 18, 2019.