The musical sensation, Les Misérables has arrived in Vancouver, and on opening night, it was clear the show’s messages of redemption and love remain timeless. Broadway Across Canada’s (BAC) production is a new re-staging of the Tony Award-winning musical, with revised orchestrations, and new lighting and set designs, to keep the show fresh and relevant to current audiences. What remains the same is the show’s gorgeous score, which is performed brilliantly by the cast and orchestra and the story’s integrity.
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic tale, first published in 1862, the musical version premiered (and continues to run) in London’s West End in 1985, and opened on Broadway in 1987. Originally directed by Trevor Nunn, BAC’s current version is directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell. Whereas the original production heavily utilized a rotating stage, which created a continual storytelling feel, this new production utilizes a more traditional staging with hauntingly beautiful dark scrims designed by Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo.
Connor and Powell’s directorial concept makes great use of Kinley’s set, which relies on a few staple pieces such as two pillars on either side of the stage with twin balconies. These pillars have the wonderful flexibility to transform into various locals.
Combined with Paule Contable’s lighting design, this production of Les Misérables takes audiences on a sweeping journey through 19th century France, from rural farm areas to the streets and alleys of Paris. There are some brilliant images created, such as the Paris coffee shop where the young revolutionaries gather, complete with sunlight that pours in through the café windows – producing what seems like a Jacques-Louis David painting.
There’s also some very clever ideas in place, such as Javert’s plunge from the bridge. Throughout the show, projections are utilized on a scrim, which assist in reproducing the feeling of continuum that the original rotating stage created. The set and lighting elements in the show keep audiences in a dark, dreary and forgive the pun, miserable, setting, which is appropriate for the show.
Connor and Powell’s staging fleshes out some aspects of the original book in logical ways. For instance, the factory scene is now clearly a workshop where the women work and talk behind other people’s backs all day, with the men coming in to perform the more physical duties. Lovely Ladies now features the prostitutes outside what I’m assuming is a brothel. And A Heart Full of Love now has a Romeo and Juliet-like balcony aspect.
What doesn’t work is the barricade scene. The set itself seems a little toned down – like a budget version of Misérables’ famous barricade. And Gavroche’s death is uncomfortably cheesy. Also, while cuts have been made in the score, and the rhythm of the music and staging have been sped up to slim down the show’s length, the first part of the second act seems a little too rushed. The poignancy of Éponine’s On My Own is lost, not to mention that of A Little Fall of Rain.
The costume design in this production, created by original costumer AndreaneNeofitou along with Christine Rowland, is outstanding. The attention to detail is remarkable – not one costume is the same. While they emulate the show’s period, every single costume (and there’s a lot of them), is unique – but they all work together in palettes and visual themes that coincide with the story and characters.
What’s remarkable in this production is the performance of Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean. Cartell’s singing is glorious and his rendition of Bring Him Home is magnificent artistry. Cartell is young, but he’s able to believably age before our eyes throughout the show. His character development from a newly released ex-convict, to how his character eventually ends up is tremendous.
Also tremendous is Josh Davis’ version of Javert. Like Cartell, he ages before our eyes throughout the show. And while one could say that Cartell’s Valjean ages beautifully, in contrast, Davis’ Javert ages horrifically, emulating the polar opposites of forgiveness and love, versus vengeance and hate. Davis is also a brilliant singer and his strong acting abilities shine through, notably in his interpretation of the lyrics in Stars.
As the comedic duo (even though their characters are awful people!), J Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn are fantastic as the Thénardiers. Their comic timing, energy and over-the-top delivery brings much-needed comic relief to the show.
Less impressive is Mary Kate Moore as Fantine. While her singing and performance is adequate, her portrayal of the tragic character didn’t quite draw me in enough or evoke the same empathy that I’ve previously felt for Fantine. Her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream is nice, but didn’t blow me away. The same goes for Joshua Grosso’s portrayal of Marius. While a strong singer and comedic actor, he doesn’t exude the dreaminess that audiences have come to expect from Marius, and despite his strong singing, his performance of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables doesn’t quite knock it out of the park.
As Éponine, Emily Bautista doesn’t ever get the chance to evoke the sensitive side of her character, making it hard for audiences to connect with her. As I mentioned, On My Own feels very rushed. However, she has Éponine’s tomboy-like qualities down pat.
Shout-outs to ensemble members go to Mike Schwitter and Ashley Dawn Mortensen. As young revolutionary Feuilly, Schwitter exhibits confidence and strong stage presence, along with a very pleasing voice. And as the bitchy Factory Girl, Mortensen is wickedly fun to watch, down to her villainous laugh when Fantine is fired.
Kudos to music director and conductor Brian Eads, who does a wonderful job leading the talented cast and orchestra is bringing Claude-Michel Schonberg’s score to life. The singing and performance of the score is the backbone to this show. Les Misérables’ music is so emotionally powerful and this production passionately deliver’s Schonberg’s hauntingly beautiful score and Herbert Kretzmer, Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel’s poetic lyrics.
Broadway Across Canada’s production of Les Misérables is a gripping and well-done telling of a story that will continue to speak to generations, due to its timeless testament to hope, forgiveness and humanity.
Les Misérables, presented by Broadway Across Canada (BAC), runs at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver, until July 15. Visit BAC’s website for ticket information.