Ipswich Musical Theatre Company (IMTC) has spent the last few years cultivating a reputation for delivery astounding blockbuster musicals. They capitalise on attracting the best of the best, and showcase the talent with lavish talent, and incredible costuming. Their 2017 production of Les Misérables is no exception. Setting a staggering bar for Queensland community theatre, the company delivers a stunning incarnation of the professional tour.
Directed with a keen eye by Melbourne expat Chris Bradtke, who brings swift smooth transitions and confident, bold choices to the staging. Bradtke delivered a faithful representation of the show which hit all of the key notes, and gave a few gentle adjustments designed to pull at the heartstrings. From the number of audience members wiping a tear away on opening night as they left the theatre, he succeeded. Bradtke is ably helped by assistant director and choreographer Ruth Gabriel who lent the movement scenes some well thought out style. In particular the tight groupings on the large Civic stage gave a real impression of just how outnumbered the revolutionaries were.
Musical direction, under the returning baton of Robert Clark, was overall solid. He brought some wonderful harmonies to the full ensemble, and the male harmony work in songs like Drink With Me, and Red and Black (The ABC Café) was gorgeous. My only thoughts during much of the show was how much slower the orchestration was than the most recent recordings. Given the length of the show, there were definitely moments where it felt as though it dragged, affecting the pacing significantly.
There were also points where the soloists felt as they were pushing against the orchestra for speed, and had to adjust phrasing accordingly. Additionally, for what is noted in the program as an orchestra of professional musicians, the balance felt a little lopsided, and there were a few too many split notes for a professional standard. Still, this did not dull the solid performances being given by cast.
In the titanic role of Jean Valjean is Robert Shearer who brings a strong command to the role. An incredibly difficult role in the musical theatre canon, Shearer did justice to the transition from beaten wretch, to statesman, to father, to failing hero. His ringing tenor led the company in ‘One Day More’ and he could have broken hearts with the ending of his ‘Bring Him Home’.
Matching Shearer stride for stride was Lionel Theunissen’s Javert. A tightly controlled performance, and spectacular vocals, Theunissen brought the rigid Inspector to the stage with a domineering intensity. Theunissen’s baritone was more than a match for Shearer in ‘The Confrontation’ but he used ‘Stars’ to truly unleash his powerful voice.
Jessica Ham brings Fantine to life in spectacular detail. The passion and the emotion brought to bear on the character by Ham during the iconic ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ is stunning to witness and her wonderfully rich voice brought well deserved cheers from the audience. Ham’s brief but powerful time on stage lifts the beginning and the end of the show and gives a wonderful, much needed, energy to those points of the production.
Perhaps my least favourite element of the story is the love triangle between Marius (William Toft), Cosette (Sophie Salvesani), and Eponine (Emily Pluckrose). However, the trio deliver a nuanced, often hilarious, and deeply heartfelt performance. The heightened melodrama Toft and Salvesani gave to their rendition of ‘A Heart Full of Love’ gave the number the nuance and lift it needed to deliver. Pluckrose’s lovely vocal quality gave ‘On My Own’ just the right amount of pathos it needed, without being too over the top.
Galvanising the youth in the ABC Café, Trent Richards gave us a strong, defiant, and at times harsh Enjolras. A confident performance, with a commanding presence on stage that was exactly what the character needed, and with a good voice. Richards had a bit of strain at the top of his register but overall gave a strong vocal performance.
As the troublesome Thernardier’s, Ian Moore and Carol Williams were hysterical. Moore leant his rich vocals to the show, and played the comedic slapstick nature of the role with relish. His acidic foil, Williams, seemed to have as much fun as you can have onstage and matched him beautifully. The pair were a delight, particularly in their final scene and reduced the audience to stitches.
Hudson Bertram was a sweet and earnest Gavroche. Lending a sincere charm to the role, Bertram excelled at both the comedy and the drama required with the ease of a much older performer. For such a young man, he is definitely one to watch.
Stage manager Jacob Olsen led the stage crew well, and there were few pacing or lag issues from the crew on opening night. However, for a production that runs at such a high calibre the things that are not quite as tight as they could be stand out glaringly. One of those things, unfortunately, is the number of stage hands in headsets that can be seen (and heard) on the stage. In a set that has been designed so that it can be operated practically without seeing anyone at all, there were some sloppy scene changes that shattered the magic of key moments in the show.
In particular the penultimate scene, where we begin to transition into the final number of the show. It is a beautifully crafted moment. Spine tingling, goosebumps raising perfection. Then two stage hands come wandering into the scene, between actors, to remove a table. Understanding full well that there is no easy way to remove it, and that this is no fault of the individual stage hands, as an audience member, I felt cheated of my moment. Many of the times we saw stage hands in scene can be fixed with some gentle reblocking, and it is always curious how the simple things become so much more obvious as the quality of the show increases.
Of course a production of this calibre would be nothing if we cannot see or hear it, and so full credit must go to the sound and lighting designers (Murray Keidge and Wesley Bluff respectively) who overall led their teams admirably. There were only a few instances of cast not being lit effectively at the front of the stage, but for the most part this added to the dark, gloomy atmosphere of the production. My only other note is the sound profile added a significant amount of reverberation to the soloists. IMTC has served up some of the best and brightest vocal talent in south ease Queensland in this production of Les Misérables, and there were moments where it felt heavy handed to add that much colouration to their already fantastic vocal sound.
Les Misérables is a show that has enchanted audiences for decades. Ipswich Musical Theatre has staged a blockbuster version of the show. It runs until 17th of September 2017 and is well worth the journey out to Ipswich to see it.