After presenting a limited engagement of the live musical phenomenon The Phantom of the Opera at Place des Arts this past October, Broadway Across Canada and evenko have ferried in another Cameron Mackintosh blockbuster that promises to satiate thirsty Montréal theatregoers.
Coming directly from an acclaimed two-and-a-half-year return to Broadway, the new production of Les Misérables, here directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, still features the legendary music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer (adapted from the original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel). This streamlined version of the stage spectacle, however, injects new life into the megahit – a flagship in the canon of musical theatre – with reimagined staging, orchestrations, and scenery.
It’s our third time seeing this particular rendering (after having first witnessed its pre-Broadway tryout in Toronto with Mirvish in 2013, and subsequently in 2015 after its official opening in New York at the Imperial Theatre), and our enthralment has yet to evanish.
Based on the 1862 historical novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, “Les Mis” depicts the macro drama of the French Revolution and follows the micro story of Jean Valjean, a man condemned to 19 years of strenuous labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family. Valjean is released from prison and breaks parole to begin a new life as wealthy factory owner and mayor of a town. But, his past continues to haunt him as he finds himself being relentlessly pursued by the righteous Inspector Javert, who is wholly determined to bring the escaped ex-convict to justice.
Seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe, Les Misérables is still breaking box office records everywhere since its London opening in 1985. With 8 Tony Awards and 5 Drama Desk Awards among its accolades, it presently reigns as the world’s longest running musical and 5th longest-running Broadway show of all time. The original stage production most notably spurred the 2012 Academy Award-winning film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, as well as the current North American touring production.
With a memorable score comprising well-known tunes such as “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” and “One Day More,” Les Misérables serves as the ideal gateway show for the musical initiate while indulging longtime consumers of the art form. It may, though, perchance, speak loudest to spectators coming to it relatively fresh (as opposed to those of us who have may been anesthetized, in varying degrees, by 30 years of overexposure to the franchise).
Astute audiences familiar with the original may find it difficult to envisage a staging of the spectacle without Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s iconic revolving set, but Connor and Powell’s devised variant is no less fluid or dynamic than its predecessor, nor is it slighter in scale. The directorial tinkerings are tangible, but they make not a classic offensively unrecognizable to the diehards.
Matt Kinley’s breathtaking scenic elements are enhanced by projected images (realized by Fifty-Nine Prods.) inspired by Hugo’s own paintings of 19th century France, lending a detailed, cinematic feel to the production. Lighting designer Paule Constable imbues the action with caliginous hues and the enriched soundscape by Mick Potter in essence becomes the very landscape of war. Les Mis is decidedly an audiovisual feat and feast, and yet it falters not in overpowering the emotional storyline or overindulging in ostentatious spectacle.
Fully sung-thru, Les Misérables carries the risk of feeling like a three-hour marathon in which audiences eventually “hit a wall” (or, perhaps more accurately, a behemothic barricade), experiencing a sudden wave of fatigue from the relentless cavalcade of melodramatic ballad after hymn after anthem. Every number is “big”, it seems, thwarting the piece of a categorical lightness despite intermittent breathings of comic relief (largely provided by the jocular Thénardier couplet).
But, this sterling company and its accompanying live orchestra of fifteen musicians (led by MD/Conductor Brian Eads) hoist the majestic score of Schönberg and Kretzmer to the heights of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier most triumphantly. The vocal chops are exceptional across the board, making the critical practice of singling out any standout musical moments very nearly inconceivable. A true ensemble piece, Les Mis finds galvanic energy and strength in numbers. Our only grievance is that the acting is uneven and stripped of spontaneous interpretation at points in the narrative (we find it exceedingly common among large scale musical theatre productions that, being the necessarily tightly rehearsed and finely tuned commercial machines that they are, actions read as highly mechanized. Inordinate effort is expended on simply preventing bodies from bumping into each other – you laugh, but it’s accurate. This remains our greatest ongoing gripe with the genre.)
Peeves aside, the intensity of individual and collective performances never wanes, and thus our hearts and minds at no time are tempted to veer away from the magic taking place centre stage.
In the demanding role of Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell is immaculate, seizing the limelight from the epic onset with his powerful instrument and later fully turning on the waterworks in a poignant rendition of “Bring Him Home”. Josh Davis too in his prowess strikes and stirs as an imperious but tortured Javert, bringing the subliminal to “Stars”. As the ill-fated Fantine, Melissa Mitchell is wholly affecting; “I Dreamed a Dream” is nothing short of chimerical. Joshua Grosso and Jillian Butler are amiable as the young lovers Marius and Cosette, inciting a believable budding romance that you dare to care for. As Éponine, Danielle J. Summons summons (pardon the irresistible wordplay) spunk and spirit. Matt Shingledecker, in his turn, is a charismatic and commanding Enjolras worthy of leadership. J Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn lend their stellar showmanship and comic chops to the Thénardiers to round the superlative cast.
From the arresting first downbeat to the rapturous final crescendo, there is little to fault in this world-class production. Grandiose, beauteous, and heartrending, Les Misérables militantly marches on to transcend generations (and to further solidify its critic-proof status.) It’s a time-tested tale of unrequited love, broken dreams, heroic sacrifice, and moral redemption – but whose themes of revolution and righteousness seem particularly relevant given the current political climate. Incontestably a worthwhile (re)visit to the theatre, if you are so fortuitous to secure a stub to this well-nigh sold out run at Place des Arts.
Les MisérablesWhere: Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts (175 St-Catherine Street West, Montreal, H2X 1Y9)When: Wednesday, February 7th to Sunday, February 11th, 2018
Running Time: 2 hours 55 minutes (including one 20 minute intermission)Admission: $51.25 to $129.50Box Office: www.evenko.ca | (514) 842-2112
Performed in English