Music Theatre

Les Misérables review [Melbourne 2014]

Do you see the people spin? Not any more, in this epic restaging of the world’s favourite musical. Without the famous turntable, the student uprising is now the only “revolution.”

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-One-Day-MoreThe brilliance of this new presentation is that it combines the musical we know and love with cutting edge stagecraft and technology, resulting in the production that Les Misérables would have had if it had been first staged this year. Rich orchestrations replace the tinny 1980s synthesizer sound, inventive projections complement time and place, costumes are freshened with muted splashes of colour, and, best of all, the show finally has scenery – and it is scenery on a massive scale. The grand scope of this production means that the visuals now match the blockbuster status of the show itself.

Purists need not fret at this description of Matt Kinley’s set and image designs or Christine Rowland’s additions to Andreane Neofitou’s costumes. The show may have been brought well into the twenty-first century, but it is far from Disney-fied. Top-form ingenuity and skill have crafted updates that feel completely natural and logical. It is just like the experience that opera lovers have felt for decades when watching a brilliant new revival of a much loved work. Although, in the brandy-soaked words of Grantaire, “It’s better than an opera.”

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Barricade

The single-set simplicity of the original staging relied on a few props and the audience’s imagination. Kinley uses various combinations of large set pieces to create full settings for locations such as Fantine’s factory, Valjean’s stately home, the Thénardiers’ inn, the streets of Paris and the student café. Projections add texture and depth to each scene, and include some thrilling effects such as the convict ship opening, the sewer journey and Javert’s death*.

Paule Constable displays painterly skills in her lighting design, bathing the stage with streams of haze-assisted light. The overall effect is still one of shadows and gloom, but the eye is drawn effectively to all sources of action, and the inky blackness upstage allows for easy transitions in the absence of the revolve. Mick Potter’s excellent sound design has the audience practically ducking for cover as bullets ricochet around the auditorium during the battles.

Revival directors Laurence Connor and James Powell keep storytelling at a premium, highlighting key moments yet still respecting audience intelligence. The streamlined production moves with a snappy flow, with cast energy and focus at peak levels throughout.

Musical staging by Michael Ashcroft and Geoffrey Garratt makes the action at Marius and Cosette’s elegant wedding celebration clearer than ever. One quibble with the choreography musical staging: just like the cakewalk of “Hello, Dolly!” and the coin-top dance of “We’re in the Money,” the triangular forward/back march of “One Day More” is so iconic that it really should never have been changed.

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Simon-Gleeson

Astounding as the lavish production elements may be, the heart and soul of this return season is the heaven-sent performance of Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean. A consummate actor and exquisite singer, Gleeson reveals multiple nuances in Valjean’s torturous journey of reform and redemption. Prompting tears as early as the Prologue, Gleeson is heartbreaking as Valjean shudders with shame and remorse at the Bishop’s kindness. Valjean’s heartfelt prayer “Bring Him Home” displays the full scope of Gleeson’s acting and vocal range. A decade after Gleeson’s breakout role was to come in ill-fated Australian musical Eureka, he is back at the Maj to live out the old adage “It’s only taken ten years to be an overnight success.”

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Hayden-Tee

Hayden Tee strikes a commanding presence as Valjean’s lifelong adversary Javert. Impressing immensely with his powerful bass baritone, Tee captures the demonic drive of Javert, underpinning this fire with the frustrated humanity of a man who believes he is right and just.

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Patrice-Tipoki

Patrice Tipoki makes a haunting impression as dear Fantine, her intrinsic musicality delivering a lovely interpretation of “I Dreamed A Dream.” Beginning with a nicely underplayed portrayal of Fantine’s quiet dignity, Tipoki adapts her full range of vocal and facial expression as Fantine dissolves into dark despair.

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Trevor-Ashley-Lara-MulcahyThe comic shenanigans of the Thénardiers are in capable hands with Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulcahy scoring plenty of welcome laughs. Ashley plays Thénardier with the gleeful menace of a playground bully, and Mulcahy offsets Madame Thenardier’s covetous greed with a merry twinkle. The pair has strong rapport in playing the devilishly dysfunctional couple, and both handle their vocals with lashings of flair and character.

LES-MISERABLES-AUSTRALIA-2014-Euan-Doidge-Emily-Langridge

A trio of relative newcomers brings authentic youthful passion to the lopsided love triangle of Marius, Cosette and Éponine. Euan Doidge is a dreamily romantic Marius, his breathless passion contrasting well with the serious intentions of the other students. Doidge sings with tender sweetness, conveying Marius’ ardour and impetuousness with engaging intensity before progressing on to a more somber, humble tone after Marius has seen the ravages of battle. Kerrie Anne Greenland brings a compelling fierceness to Éponine, her eyes practically blazing with love for Marius. A solid belter, Greenland soars through classic power ballad “On My Own.” Emily Langridge is an angelic Cosette, her sweetness giving Marius every reason to fall in love. On the few occasions it is heard, Langridge’s pure soprano has a lovely tone. Strong as each of these three performers are, they will undoubtedly make even more advances as the season progresses.

Les Miserables 2014 Melbourne

His appearance transformed, most attractively, by a blonde wig, Chris Durling is a heroic figure as student leader Enjolras. Although in fine voice, Durling lacks a little of the gravitas required for the commanding role. Still, the youth of performers like Durling, Doidge and others adds weight to the female chorus’ lament: “No one ever told them that a summer day can kill.”

On opening night, Ben Jason-Easton, Alexandra Travers and Maani Baaker gave polished, plucky performances as Gavroche, Young Cosette and Young Éponine.

While each ensemble member expertly plays a mind-boggling number of characters, special mention goes to Luke Joslin, who brings a distinctly mature and highly accomplished presence to each of his roles.

With a Melbourne season of only six months, it seems inconceivable that Les Misérables will not sell out its entire run. Storm the barricades for a ticket.

Les Misérables plays at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne.

*If you needed a spoiler alert for Javert’s death you are clearly new to the world of music theatre. Welcome.

To view Man in Chair’s photo preview of the Melbourne production of Les Misérables click HERE

Photos: #1-7 Matt Murphy; #8 Simon Parris

This review published on Theatre People 4 July 2014

35 replies »

  1. My thoughts exactly, I have seen the original production 30 times, I have already seen this new production 3 times after tonight, Simon is among my top 3 JVJ ever. This show means the world to me, I thought no revolve would ruin the show but after 10 min I didn’t miss it at all. Love this new production.

    • Thanks so much for your feedback Chris.

      I have to say that you have very likely seen the original more times than me (I have performed it in though!)

      Very impressed that you have already seen it 3 times here. I think 2 visits won’t be enough for me!

      Intrigued to know who are the other 2 JVJs in your top 3…

  2. Just got home from the Saturday Matinee perf….. Absolutely blown away… So powerful I don’t know how they can keep going till October! Brilliant staging, everything perfect.

    • Sounds like you enjoyed it as much as I did Simon.
      While it’s booking til October, it will be here til December, then move on to Perth and Sydney. I agree, they will need great stamina to keep up these performances!

      • What date in December will it be here ’til ?, visitor coming out from the UK in December and I want to make sure he doesn’t miss it, we will arrange travel dates to guarantee attendance – I had only booked 4 lots of tickets so far and really happy to add to my tally, I saw the show in London many times and have been waiting for it to come to Melbourne for the 10 years I have been here, saw it last Friday and loved it, well worth waiting for, just a shame we had to wait so long and now it is leaving so quickly.

      • Hi Nan, I agree – I wish it could stay here for two years or more! The exact finishing date has not been released yet. The main detail available is that it opens in Perth on 13 January 2015. They will play as long as they can in Melbourne, but have to transport the set across to Perth and bump in over there. I think your visitor would be safe to see it up until just before Christmas, although it might end up going until the start of January. Hope everything works out for your plans!

  3. Attended today’s Saturday matinee, or should I say thoroughly enjoyed it. Great sound, set and effects too. One question though, did I have a brain freeze and miss the urchin Gavroche’s song ‘Little People’ of which I heard only a line? Or did they omit the whole song in this modern version? If it’s the latter it is a real shame – one if my favs and the part was played so endearingly I was really looking forward to it!

    • Hi Boo, I don’t think you had a brain freeze- “Little People” has been greatly reduced in length. The shame of this is that it diminishes the impact of Gavroche singing it again as he dies. Better have a listen to the original London cast again for old time’s sake. I like to listen to it to hear “In My Life.” Whatever happened to that one?

  4. Such a well written piece, well done Simon 🙂

    I saw Les Mis yesterday afternoon and was blown away. Simon Gleeson hit it out of the park with his performance – there is nothing more to say. Bring Him Home was breathtaking and moving, probably my favourite performance of that song yet? I also really enjoyed Who Am I? – especially the moment he enters the court room – another excellent example of the amazing staging that you mention.

    I actually enjoyed the Enjolras performance – I thought he may have been as strong as Marius in the vocal stakes. Perhaps it is due to some of the songs performed by Enjolras being among my favourites (Red and Black, Drink with Me).

    Simon, what did you make of ‘A Little Fall of Rain’? I love the song, but I felt in the production yesterday the lyrics and perhaps some emotion was lost in the “performance” of Eponine (as she was losing her battle to live). There was a lot of movement there. I think back to the Les Mis movie, and just remember a remarkable performance by Samantha Banks in the same role, and whilst Eponine was very good yesterday, I preferred the Samantha Banks performance (I believe Banks previously had performed the Eponine character on stage shows also?). I also understand it’s very different on stage, compared to a movie!

    Best 3 songs for our group? Bring Him Home, Who Am I, One Day More

    Little Fall of Rain disappointed only slightly, whilst some of the younger casting (such as young Cosette, as talented as they clearly are!) perhaps didn’t quite hit it out of the park.

    Anyway, interested in your thoughts – and again, terrific review by you!

    • Thanks so much for your feedback and comments Luke, much appreciated. Lucky that you were able to see the show so early in the season. It seems like tickets are going to be very hard to come by.

      Simon Gleeson’s performance really is incredible and ranks with the absolute best in the role. He deserves international recognition.

      Chris Durling is good as Enjolras, but it is hard to erase the memory of how thrilling Anthony Warlow was in the original Australian cast. It would have been unfair to make this comparison in my review though. I feel confident that Chris, and the other young performers, will grow and improve in the coming weeks.

      I agree that it is hard to see A Little Fall of Rain clearly given the way they are lying on the ground. (Valjean, for example, is much more clearly displayed while singing Bring Him Home.) I appreciated the way Kerrie Greenland showed Eponine to be excited, but torn, about finally being in Marius’ arms. I guess that Samantha Barks had the advantage of camera close-ups. Have you watched the 25th anniversary concert of Les Mis? Barks’ performance of On My Own brings incredible applause!

      i agree about Young Cosette – she seems to have been directed to stand very still during her song and show little emotion. Gavroche is a more entertaining and satisfying role – the only disappointment is that the role was cut down somewhat from the original score. Piece of trivia: did you know that in the novel Gavroche is the Thenardier’s son/Eponine’s little brother.

      Thanks again for your comments, and I hope you have further chances to enjoy Melbourne theatre as the year goes on.

  5. Just saw this production and was so sad my children didn’t see the Trevor Nunn original. Colm Wilkinson, Patty Lupone, Michael Ball, Alan Armstrong, Francis Rufelle. Layered performance and unforced true emotion. This version is enjoyable, but doesn’t have Trevor Nunn’s genius as a director. Sad for the young generation ( and actors) not to know the difference. It’s good that it’s still being seen and heard though, because the score is sublime.

    • You have to be joking, new sets are great, I saw the original many times which I admit was amazing, but so is the new production. Opening scene, sewer scene and suicide far excel the original, only disappointment of the non revolving stage was after the failed revolution and the barricade turned to reveal the dead student laying across the flag, everything else was better.

      • I have to say I agree entirely with this comment. The new production is very slick and includes some strong performances, but fails to evoke the emotional impact of the original. Some direction appeared to be based on the need to try to match the film or be seen to be different, rather than honest interpretation of the script. Too much yelling at the expense of genuine vocal control and performances lacked subtlety (Why were so many characters so unrelentingly angry?) and included distracting movement, drawing focus at key times (eg A little fall of Rain) In regard to the review, the line suggesting that the stagecraft and sets resulted “in the production that Les Misérables would have had if it had been first staged this year” is extraordinarily naive. Shows have been staged with that level of technology for more than 20 years. The decision to stage original Les Mis in the manner that it was (and still is in London) was an artistic decision. It was not for a lack of technology.

      • Thanks for your feedback Kierin.
        Looking over the comments on here again just now (not just yours) it reminds of the way people wish the original Star Wars movies could be seen without the tweaks and changes. Not saying that’s a good or bad thing – just making a comparison of the sentiment in both cases.
        I have not been back to this production since the opening so I am not 100% sure how the acting is going. I can see from what you are saying that it might not be quite right, and I agree that getting the emotion and sentiment right is more important than updating the staging. All the spectacle in the world is no good if it doesn’t move you.
        I think I have seen enough theatre over the past 35 or so years not to be too naive about it all. While the original production projected the location names and the years onto the back wall, the sort of animated projections used in this new version were not around at that stage. From what I have seen and researched, the original staging was at a fairly simple level in accordance with what the RSC could afford for a fairly experimental musical production. It was not meant to necessarily meant to last for nearly 30 years. There is a level of sophistication in the new production that is possible now because producers are willing to spend the money on development etc because they know the show is already a hit and their outlay of money is fairly safe. I certainly wasn’t intending to say there was anything wrong with the original staging, but they now seem to have really brought the show into the 21st century.
        I hope the performances continue to grow in refinement and depth, and I look forward to watching the new Australian production again in the coming months.

  6. This is an excellent review.

    I went to last night’s performance, and while I think it was a spectacular theatrical performance I must admit that I felt a little bit let down by Marius and Enjolras’ vocal performances – I felt that they were lacking a bit of colour and power and were outshone by some of their fellow revolutionaries in this regard. Early on I also thought that Gleeson let some of young Valjean’s anger cause him to miss some important notes. That feeling didn’t last long, and by the time he had belted out Bring Him Home I had completely forgotten.

    The inevitable challenge for the male cast of Australian productions of Les Mis is that they are expected to fill boots left by the likes of Warlow and Quast, which is no easy feat.

    The female cast was wonderful, the highlight for me being Greenland (although I agree with some others that her energetic performance in Little Fall of Rain may have been slightly divergent from the canon).

    A big plus to this production for not shrinking away from some of the grittier scenes. The sewer scene and Dog Eats Dog is so often cut or truncated, but was wonderfully done last night.

    • Thanks very much for your feedback Ronaldo. Glad to hear that you enjoyed this new production of Les Miz. In fact, reading your comments makes me think it is almost time to see it again!

      The producers have taken a bit of a punt with the younger casting. They may go on to grow into their roles, but, as you say, memories of classic performances in the roles are in the minds of many audience members. The great thing for the younger performers (besides the opportunity to be there in the first place) is having the example of level headed, committed performers like Simon Gleeson and Luke Joslin as role models.

      it will be fascinating to follow the career of Kerrie Anne Greenland given that she has such a powerful voice at such young age.

  7. I went to see the production today and come away feeling a little disappointed. Although there were a number of positives which have been outlined via the comments above, I felt that many of the emotionally charged moments were missed in this production. Fontine and Eponine’s death are two which immediately come to mind and when Enjolras is killed during the uprising, the scene was not as stirring as it should have been. I felt the performance was rushed and had I not known every song and every word the way that I do, I believe that I would have got lost in the pace at which they rushed through the lyrics and then hurriedly launching right into the next song. I was cringing at times as the lyrics were being shouted and felt that there were many times when characters were overacting. My first experience of Les Mis was in London in 1995. It was the best production I have seen and had many more elements to ones that I have been to since. I cannot understand why producers feel the need to deviate from this model as makes the scenes far less powerful in doing so. Needless to say this new production has been put together by a team of very talented people and they must be loudly congratulated for doing such a great job at this.

  8. I just came from New York, and saw the new production of Les Mis with Ramin Karimloo. It got a huge standing ovation from the audience, but I felt disappointed. I felt that most of the major players over sang, including Ramin. They belted out the popular tunes, and gave a lesson in over acting. I believe the new production was directed by the same people who directed the anniversary concert version, and it showed. The main players went up to centre stage and sang. It felt very static to me. Plus, I miss the following from the original production: 1) the revolving barricade to show the 2 battling sides, 2) the triangular forward back march in ‘Do you hear the people sing’, and 3) the staging of all the major players in One Day More. Yes, the stage projections were good, and the suicide of Javert was impressive. I am sure that this new production will find a new audience. I just wish that they had ‘respected’ some of the original elements from the original production.

    • I totally disagree, first part sets the scene for the rest of the show. I saw the show 6 times during it’s Melbourne run. Every time it was great, it’s last night was unbelievable – atmosphere was electric, we evidently didn’t want it to go away. I have seen several shows since and absolutely NOTHING measures up to Les Miserables. Simon and Hayden appeared on every one of my visits, and were amazing ! This production beats the original hands down, with just one exception (after the revolution in the old version the barricade turned around to see Enjolras lying dead across the red flag – that was very moving and the handcart doesn’t have quite the same impact) . I could go on for a very long time extolling the virtues of the production, but don’t want to bore you.
      Thank you guys so much !

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