REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★

For almost a decade, Pro-Am company Packemin has mounted impressive productions of classic and contemporary musicals at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, and audience responses are unfailingly enthusiastic. Much-loved works it has presented in the geographic heart of Sydney include The Phantom of the Opera, West Side Story, Miss Saigon and Jesus Christ Superstar.

For its first of two productions in 2020, Packemin has taken on arguably its greatest challenge to date in the form of the Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg-penned blockbuster Les Misérables. The world’s longest running musical, Les Misérables has been on stage now in London for 35 years, has been performed in 52 countries and 22 languages and won over 100 international awards. Its 2012 film adaptation (starring Hugh Jackman) is one of the 10 biggest movie musical box office successes of all time.

The last professional production of Les Mis to play in Sydney spent eight months at the Capitol Theatre in 2015. It was in that production that Daniel Belle understudied the role of Jean Valjean and Robert McDougall covered Javert. Belle and McDougall have now taken on those respective lead roles for Packemin’s Riverside season.

Based on the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Mis is an epic tale set in Paris in the nineteenth century; a critique of the unyielding class system of the day and its intrinsic social injustice. At the centre of it all is Jean Valjean, an upright man-turned-embittered convict, released from imprisonment after 19 years on a chain gang for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. He breaks parole and begins a new life, but despite efforts to demonstrate his honourable character, Valjean is relentlessly pursued by the incredulous police inspector Javert.

While Valjean continues on a decades-long run from the past, a student rebellion seeks to upend the squalor of post Revolution, post industrialised Paris, but a gallantly mobilised battle at the barricade is not the vehicle by which momentous change is to come about.

Clocking in at approximately 3 hours (with an interval), Les Mis is an elegiac but hopeful story of struggle, instability and insurrection that makes a case for love and compassion as the fundamental drivers of profound and meaningful change. While always timely, that sentiment seems especially germane in the current geopolitical climate. Musically, the show includes some of the most seminal pieces in the canon, pieces with sweeping melodies and poetic lyrics that can cause an audience to feel the full suite of emotions.

When done well, Les Mis is one of the most memorable and potent musical theatre experiences one can encounter, and under the direction of Luke Joslin (himself a cast member in the most recent professional Australian tour), this is Packemin’s most accomplished musical presentation to date. It is faithful to its origins and evidences painstaking endeavours by Joslin and his team to ensure no detail in the intricate and evermoving narrative is lost. Background conversations between ensemble members point to extensive work done to have every person on stage acutely aware of their purpose for being there and, right throughout, there’s a tremendous sense of the commitment of this cast.

Musical director Peter Hayward and his orchestra achieve a fulsome reproduction of the score. The pace is never rushed and the music soars when it needs to do so. David Grigg’s sound design ensures the overall balance between voice and accompaniment is on the mark.

The set, provided by Melbourne’s CLOC Musical Theatre Company, evokes John Napier’s work for the original London production and is well scaled to the Riverside Theatre stage, with its impressive proscenium arch. Similarly, the design of Audrey Currie’s costumes means each character is instantly recognisable to anyone who saw the recent Australian Tour of Les Mis.

Out front, Belle’s and McDougall’s performances, on their own, are worth the price of admission. From the moment he emerges from the chain gang, Belle exudes gravitas as Valjean. That he has spent substantial time in this character is obvious, because his every move seems so organic. Vocally, his clear and commanding tenor sees Belle succeed in making each of his major solos a highlight. His ‘What have I done’, Valjean’s reckoning with himself, is performed with astonishing conviction and power, while his gentle vocals on ‘Bring him home’ are affecting and earn him an extended applause on opening night.

McDougall, meanwhile, is equally outstanding as the musical’s main antagonist. His Javert is austere and intransigent but impelled by an overwhelming urge to enforce the law and protect order. McDougall does well in conveying Javert’s tenacity, but steers clear of depicting him as villainous. Particularly noteworthy is McDougall’s articulation of each syllable Javert says or sings and his consistently well-judged cadence. In song, he is excellent; his rich baritone gifts us a fervent performance of ‘Stars’ that is easily one of this production’s best moments.

It’s no overstatement to say that in Belle and McDougall, Packemin has two principal actors delivering Riverside audiences world-class performances that would be warmly received on any stage, anywhere in the world.

That said, this is a cast in which everyone contributes. Matilda Moran’s portrayal of Fantine is tender and sympathetic, and ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is sung with skill and sensitivity; Emma Mylott is strong as the brave but overlooked Eponine, and her performance of ‘On my own’ is both measured and moving; Georgia Burley’s soprano is a strong asset to her portrayal of Cosette; and Alex Cape and Prudence Holloway pair well to give us the roughhousing we expect from Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Brenton Bell’s Marius has integrity, while Noah Rayner proves a fitting choice for Enjolras, the student rebellion leader.

Packemin has long been a reliable supplier of high-quality musical theatre offerings to Riverside Theatres, and Les Misérables further reinforces why the company is held in such high regard by Sydney’s theatre community. Don’t miss the chance to see Belle and McDougall triumph in these iconic roles.

Photo credit: Grant Leslie Photography

LES MISÉRABLES – SEASON DETAILS

Dates: Playing now until 29 February 2020
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Parramatta
Tickets: $42 – $65 (transaction fees apply)
Bookings: Online at riversideparramatta.com.au or by phone on (02) 8839 3399

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