I saw the new production of Les Miserables running in Toronto for my first outing last night and because I am such a junkie, I may write about it again; but I wanted to note a few things that have changed in the production we all grew up with.
Les Miserables, in the golden age of the evolution of Blockbuster musicals, was always rather minimalist: what with its apt use of a revolve and the jigsaw pieces of the barricade and a few flashes and smoke and fog machines as well as some expert lighting being the whole of its special effects.
Here, Powell has upped the ante- though still keeps the focus on the story and not on the things that go “bang” on stage with firecrackers…thank the Lord. He has fleshed out a lot of the sets: from the factory where Fantine loses her job, to the ships where the Lovely Ladies prowl for prey to the gardens and house front at Valjean and Cosette’s digs at 55 Rue Plumet. When we do get to the barricade scenes, we are looped into a narrow scope that ultimately feels like we are looking down the barrel of a city street. The students using everything from chairs to a spindling wheel to separate us, the audience, from their National Guard foe.
Powell uses several of Hugo’s own illustrations to give us a glimpse of industrial Paris: the technique is most enticing when it depicts sequences such as the rush through the sewers or Javert’s magnanimous ponderings on that infamous bridge above the Seine, the stars overhead like pinpricks in the black night he cannot rush from.
When the film first came out, I mentioned how beguiled I was that it added snippets from the literary source material evaded in the musical. I really found the moment between Valjean and Petite Gervais ( the young ruffian he steals a sou from ) to be amplified here. More still, the candlesticks and crosses are more present and front. Character-wise, our cast excelled at directorial changes that saw a burgeoning closeness and paradox between (an excellent) Grantaire and Gavroche. Gavroche is pained by Eponine’s death to the extent that those who recognize their familial relationship ( they are both Thenardiers) will be appeased.
The orchestration is fabulous. Every melancholy, thematic and robust layer of the score is stripped and built and stripped and built, peeled back with the focus on a single strain of an instrument: powerful and swelling but never taking away from the prime voices.
Which leads me to Ramin Karimloo: our celebrity, Canadian-raised Valjean. He is magnificent. His literal youth allows for a ferocious Valjean at the beginning—before his conversion—and his heartfelt way of emoting everything with the resonance of pure and unadulterated compassion seeps through. His initial bond with Cosette is charming. I just cannot speak highly enough of him in the role. And, for a girl who saw Colm Wilkinson on stage in the role several times, I was flabberghasted that Karimloo’s Bring Him Home could almost pre-empt Wilkinson’s definitive version. Karimloo’s voice –which in previous scenes has been seen as grating, over-powered, over-bearing, controlled, breathless and passionate—is pure and ethereal: a glistening tone that hushes the audience and lingers with the sweet pitch of his held last line. This is a magnificent exercise in offering: Valjean, palms outstretched to heaven, tasting every word as it slips his lips and falls on Heavenly ears.
Our Eponine was also of note. Melissa O’Neil has a great, thoroughly pop-styled voice that has influenced so much of Broadway of late; but her tomboyish demeanor and simultaneously tragic and light countenance propel her in fluid movement around Marius and the stage. When she is finally fatally wounded, the duet A Little Fall of Rain is more than once truncated by her authentic moans and frightening groans of pain. It was really authentic; more visceral than sweet and perhaps pounded the audience into the stark realization that this is not a romantic story: this is one of an unhappy soul hungering for the life her beloved can (and won’t) give her.
The Thenardiers are problematic for me because of their deprivation of any comic entitlement in the story. However, I know well that Boubil and Schonberg were in dire need of comic relief so, as per usual, they ham their way with guttural roars and a lot of physical comedy. They “Sweeney Todd” it, as it were.
The One Day More choreography: synchronized marching, with slight feature of all of the characters winding round the plot’s intricate carousel is here amplified again: a fabulous maze that you don’t want to end, the harmonies blazing with the full effect of the orchestra. Good Lord people, I loved the film; but this feeling can never happen on screen. It needs to be experienced live.
Javert. Gah. Javert. What a dish of a role. Earl Carpenter is all stoic and rigid with his voice as powerful as his presence. His suicide scene is one of my favourites of the story. Here still, as before, the contrast between legalism and grace is vast and moving. Valjean, touched by the Bishop of Digne’s act of unwarranted redemptive love is spun into a vortex of caring, of belief, of faith and humanity: moved by grace so that it propels his life. Javert, as steadfast in his belief of God and righteousness, is a product of legalism and rigid law. When grace is offered him by Valjean he cannot fathom how he can live with it. Throwing himself off a bridge and sinking at the precipice of his thought that Valjean holds dominion.
Old Testament God. New Testament God.
The orchestra is brilliant. Cosette is no longer swathed in that ugly black dress ( no matter how source authentic it was for a time ) and all is well.
Seeing Les Miserables is a religious experience because the story is so drenched in redemption and grace. You can’t shy or shirk its religious overtones, all gloriously central and propagating the life of the converted Valjean, so it is best to just run with it and let it over-take you
Dazzling new production. Seriously fast-paced; but loaning it a sense of visceral urgency, an energy mirroring the student’s fervor for change and the precipice of this cast of characters on the brink of something brilliant and light and that only Heaven can intercept with the replacement of the sword for ploughshare.
Here's a nice interview with Ramin. He grew up like every Canadian---wanting to be a hockey player; but then ... then he saw Colm Wilkinson as Phantom: http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2013/10/15/ramin_karimloo_gives_thanks_for_les_misrables.html