16 April 2014
Les Miserables is one of my favourite musicals. I can remember buying the CD when it was first released and listening to it endlessly. I recall, with genuine admiration and national pride, the stunning original Australian cast who so brilliantly enlivened Trevor Nunn’s original production there in 1987. Some of the performances in that production still rank as among the greatest I have ever experienced in the theatre. I saw that original production more than a dozen times in that first year, so overwhelming was it.
Now playing at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre is Cameron Macintosh’s new production of Les Miserables, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.
Judging by the crowd’s anticipatory joy prior to the first note being played and their almost Pavlov-dog like response to sustained high notes being belted from the stage, this will be a hit. One Osric would have gleefully marked as palpable.
But it left me entirely unmoved.
Excess is the directorial tone here: more is adequate; much more is desirable; much much more is gold. Everything is loud, even sotto voce passages, or, more often, louder than loud. Squawking and screeching is preferable to diction and singing, it seems.
There are interpolated alternate notes (higher ones of course), more belts than in a leather street stall in Florence and oceans of unrestrained white noise in place of tight ensemble singing.
The new designs are nice enough and Paule Constable’s impeccable, perfect lighting makes everything look better than it has any right to look.
But the chief difficulty of the piece can be summed up by the image at the end of Valjean’s soliloquy, at the point where the Bishop has saved him and he has been gifted silver to commence a new life. Lit by spotlights from left, right and above, Valjean rips open his tunic to reveal his flawless twenty-six pack chest, to have the light bounce off his finely honed torso while he hits the top note.
As Cinderella might have said, it’s a very nice chest…but what has that image got to do with Valjean or the journey of his character? It’s the rough equivalent to Maria fishing out her teats on the way to the Von Trapp residence while hitting the final note in I Have Confidence. Interesting, possibly even beautiful image. But why?
It was the recurring question of the evening.
Some notes for some of the cast:
Valjean (Ramin Karimloo): Sir Cameron is not always right. Stick to your beliefs.
Javert (Will Swenson): Lovely work but you seem to be in the wrong story.
Fantine (Caissie Levy): Stop that and sing.
Madame T (Keala Settle): Nice.
Thérnardier (Cliff Saunders): Really? Seriously?
Éponine (Nikki M James): Keep looking for the way.
Cosette (Samantha Hill): I liked you very much.
Marius (Andy Mientus): Marius is not a girl.
Reimagining great productions is de rigour on the great musical stages of the world. Sometimes, the reimagining can surpass the original vision.
This is not such a case. At least, with this cast and this approach to the text and the music.