Schönberg and Boublil’s masterpiece Les Misérables, adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel of the same name, bursts onto the Savoyards’ stage this June/July. The musical is a phenomenal adaptation, with a grand, sweeping story, and with an iconic score to match. The story is, at its core, an exploration of the duality and conflict of what it means to be human.
The stories intertwine, in a complex, and fast moving web that spans generations. Two old men, locked in a lifelong struggle, one so focused on the ideals of justice that he loses his humanity, one so intent on the graces of being a better man, that he gives over all concept of the law. Two young men, one wracked by the ideals of a free people, the other battling with which he values more, serving his people, or love. Two women, one seeking security, love, care, and a life of more, another who would throw it all away for the type of romance she’s only read about. A mother who would give everything for her child, and parents who would use the last breath of their daughter to increase their wealth.
Under the direction of Robbie Parkin, we have a softer, reflective, safe incarnation of the production. A lot of the urgency and danger from the ensemble scenes is missing, and scenes that should teem with acidity, crudeness, and give the show a lot of its shape are instead restrained. The chorus (and boy is this a super talented chorus) should have plenty of scope to develop the smaller characters and stories, in particular in numbers like ‘At The End Of The Day’ and ‘Lovely Ladies’. Instead, there is a feeling of restriction, the ‘ladies’ sit quietly in a huddle, rather than stalking the night and confronting the audience, and their prey. I wanted more from these scenes, the feeling of urgency, and a sense of the lives being ground underfoot.
What Parkin does extraordinarily well, is the small, quiet moments of the production, delivered in silence, even from the perpetual underscore, as small pieces of action unfold. Moments like Fantine’s apron being taken from her, done in a total, eerie, silence. This was handled with great attention to detail, and is a credit to Parkin’s skill as a director. Additionally, Parkin’s work with Gabrielle Parkin through the sections of choreographed movement felt seamless and tightly put together, although I would have liked to see more of the huge ensemble energy used through numbers like ‘Master of the House’.
Musical direction by Geoffrey Secomb showcases the best of the incredibly rich score, and makes the most of the smorgasbord of talent in the full ensemble. Secomb has a clear affection for, and understanding of, the score, and from the moment the overture started, the iconic music wrapped the auditorium in a gorgeous blanket of sound. His work with soloists gave clear credit to the music as written, rather than several recent productions (even the professional staging) that were entirely too fluid. The songs that feature the full company, of particular note ‘One Day More’, could have blown the roof off the theatre, and were breathtaking in their power and dynamic range.
There were some issues with the balance between the orchestra and the singers throughout the performance, often both the orchestra and the singers felt too quiet, and were unfortunately difficult to hear. Additionally, singer’s cues were missed, with mics being left off until well after singers had started. The balance did improve as the show moved into the second Act, and the audio work done in the sewers and during Javert’s suicide was wonderful.
Shannon Foley leads an incredible cast as Jean Valjean. His vocals are exquisite, and soar through the demanding score, powering into his upper register spectacularly. Foley’s ‘Bring Him Home’ is stunning to listen to, and captures all of the fears, determination, and grace that Valjean has within him. Indeed it is the quiet moments of reflection and tenderness that make Foley such a standout, as he portrays a man lost in the world and desperately seeking his salvation.
As Inspector Javert, Christopher Thomas strode onto the stage with all of the seething, driven, God-fuelled intent that made Philip Quast a star. His rich, deep vocals and striking stage presence lent the show urgency and purpose. The fire and strength Thomas gives his Javert is a gorgeous match for the gentleness that Foley portrays, and the sharp contrast between the two pushes the story forward.
Elijah Fern as Gavroche had some wonderful moments throughout the production and charmed effortlessly as the loveable, erstwhile, rogue. Nowhere were his efforts more charming and engaging than when he was foiling Javert, popping up quickly into scenes to interject a sharp line and some humour. Fern’s work on the barricade during his final moments brought tears to many eyes in the audience, and his lovely voice during ‘Little People’ was a treat.
As Fantine, Sarah Copley gives a fiery and heartbreaking performance. Her rich, gorgeous vocals soar in the shows best known number ‘I Dreamed A Dream’, and her slow descent from factory worker to broken and dying street walker is every bit as swift and horrifying as it needs to be. Her touches of rage, attacking Valjean before collapsing exhausted into his arms, gave her short amount of stage time huge impact and contrast wonderfully with the enormous love she clearly has for her child. Her last moments, reaching for the daughter she will never see again and somehow, despite her frailty, fighting the two carers trying to hold her in bed, is some of the best acting that this production has to offer and left few dry eyes in the audience.
Belinda Burton charmed as Cosette. Her crystalline soprano was sublime and frankly far more suited to the role than many professional iterations we have seen. The sweetness of the top notes in ‘A Heart Full Of Love’ are breathtaking, and the sheer energy and joy she brings to the role light the stage up each time she is on it. Burton gave us a delightful mixture of fire and sweetness in her Cosette, and the final moments of the show were genuinely heartbreaking as she collapsed into the arms of Marius (played by Matthew Geaney).
As Marius, Geaney gives us a charmingly heartfelt portrayal. Unfortunately during the opening weekend he was clearly suffering from a major cold, and full credit must be given to his determination and professionalism, to sing through the demanding role in spite of that level of sickness is no small thing. Geaney’s performance is gorgeous, and he gave a deeply conflicted performance, torn between duty and love.
Rounding out the shows love triangle, Erika Naddei plays Eponine with such a wonderful amount of fire and spark. She showed the wonderfully complex feelings Eponine has, feelings of love, betrayal, and grief perfectly, while allowing her to be her own person. Her voice is phenomenal, and Naddei’s version of ‘On My Own’ is a show highlight, powering over the top of the orchestra. Once again, really highlighting that the still, reflective moments of the show are easily the most powerful.
As the commandeering, ill-fated Enjolras, Travis Holmes gives a standout performance. His powerful, surprisingly rich, voice brings some of the most iconic numbers in the show to the fore. His rendition of ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ is gorgeous, and lifts the end of Act One perfectly, to drive it towards the climax. Holmes has a presence on the stage that is hard to ignore, making him the perfect fit to lead the revolution, but he also manages to work in a commendable amount of compassion into what is often a stern and unforgiving character.
As villains and comedic relief, the Thernardier’s, Warryn James, and Julie Eisentrager stole the show and ran away with it, all while cackling madly. They popped up every so often, to give a much needed breath of fresh air to an otherwise maudlin storyline, but also to interject a sense of “perspective” into the proceedings. That while people are lost in notions of revolution, justice, or humanity, that the wheel keeps on turning, and people keep on living their lives. James and Eisentrager developed a complicated, but gorgeous relationship, that was both loving and loathing all in one. They delivered side splitting laughs, and curious reflection, in equal measure and clearly enjoyed every single minute of their time onstage.
Honourable mention goes to James Riley as the Bishop Digne. His rich vocals, and the tender, thoughtful way he portrays the character is to be thoroughly commended. Additionally, Ian Moore as the Foreman gives a striking gravel and danger to his performance that provides an acute sense of danger to the scene.
It’s been years since the performance rights for Les Miserables were locked away under the guise of professional performance rights. Seeing it back on a community theatre stage is a lot like welcoming an old friend back into your home. Savoyards’ production brings the rich story and score to life for a strictly limited season. Tickets available at www.savoyards.com.au, and with a large part of the season already sold out, you’re going to want to get your tickets fast.