Theatre Review:  Les Misérables

Distilled from a 19th century novel written by Victor Hugo, with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, book and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jeanmarc Natel, ‘Les Miserable’ has become a world-wide musical theatre phenomenon.

Presented by The Gilbert & Sullivan Society of South Australia
Reviewed 28th September, 2017

As we sat waiting for the curtain to go up on the G & S Society’s latest production of Les Misérables, the woman sitting next to me confided “It’s a frightfully emotional show”. The directors, Linda Williams and David Sinclair, in their programme notes, say that it’s about “…redemption, compassion, duty, selflessness, relationships and at its core, life and society”. This is indeed a show with big themes.

Distilled from a 19th century novel written by Victor Hugo (a sort of a French Charles Dickens), with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, French book and lyrics by Alain Boublil and Jeanmarc Natel, it’s become a world-wide musical theatre phenomenon. Its most recent film version was made in 2012.

The broad brush-strokes of this socio-political drama propel the story from Toulon in 1815 to Paris in 1832 with a dizzying succession of characters. There are nearly fifty people on stage. This is, in itself, a logistical challenge, let alone a directorial one. David Sinclair, as set designer, deserves high praise for the simplicity and effectiveness of his solution to the traffic problems: screens and scrim.  Ten tall screens surround the stage area – some pivoting, some sliding.  Scenery is projected onto them.  There is minimal furniture, and its setting and striking is swift and effective, rarely delaying the dramatic impetus of the show. Multiple scrims allow sections of the stage to be used, whilst unlit sections behind are prepared for the following scene. The design serves the nature of this piece very well indeed.

With so many cast members, the directors have rich options for populating the stage. The company numbers have a fine choral sound, no doubt thanks to musical director Peter Johns. Their work is well-synchronised, articulated clearly, and presented with vocal and performative vigour. The one exception is the gentlemen of the chain gang, who sound as if they have seen better days. In their defence, they weren’t being treated very nicely at the time.

The work of the principals varied from good to excellent. Mark Oates plays Jean Valjean with calm assurance. His maturity is right for the role, and his voice handles the demands very well. That the good guy in this piece is a convicted felon is a great help to an actor – it saves the hero from being too much of a cardboard cut-out. Both the directors and Mr Oates ensure that Valjean’s humaneness is front and centre. As Javert, implacable nemesis of Valjean, Andrew Crispe is in excellent voice, with great vocal range, crisp articulation and lovely resonance. Although he cuts a sinister figure, his acting is insufficient foil for Oates’ breadth of energy.

Although Valjean and Javert share the heaviest load, both vocally and dramatically, the other principals need to be equally strong and capable. Best performances by far are by Casmira Hambledon, whose troubled Fantine is a masterclass in acting and singing, and David McGillivray, as student activist Enjolras. Constantly present and focused, his acting is flawless, informing his fine singing with authenticity. Gavroche (Oscar Bridges on the night I went) has just the right amount of truculent charm, and never strays into caricature. The thankless juve-lead roles of Marius (Joshua Angeles) and Cosette (Emma Haddy) are both beautifully sung.

Fifteen musicians are in the pit. Under musical director Peter Johns’ direction, they manage the complex range of tasks that composer Schönberg set them. I suspect that the intonation problems in both string and brass sections were a product of first-night teething troubles. These became evident in the string accompaniments to I Dreamed A Dream and Who Am I?, and the exposed brass lines in Stars. Johns clearly knows what he’s doing musically, and I suspect that this will settle down during the run.  On another sound topic: solo voices were frequently over-reverbed in the sound mix. Some performers sounded as if they were permanently consigned to the sewers of Paris.

As a complete entertainment, this show certainly delivers.  Music, drama and visual spectacle support each other in a passionate examination of the difference between justice and the law.  Directors Sinclair and Williams have optimised their assets and presented a show with wisdom and heart. Note: I rarely recommend to theatregoers that they read the Director’s Notes; punters suffer enough as it is.  However, in this case, the Directors’ Notes are thoughtful and worth a read (even though the apostrophe in the heading is wrong).

Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson

Venue:  The Arts Theatre
Season: 28th September – 7th October, 2017
Duration:  2 hours, 50 minutes
Tickets:  Full Price: $41.85 Concession$35.65


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