BWW Review: LES MISÉRABLES by Broadway Across Canada Left Me With a Heart Full of Love
When I was a kid, Les Misérables was one of five cast albums we owned. Every other day, I would be in my kitchen, playing the Original Broadway Cast Recording and acting out all of the characters; I loved giving my own life and emotion to Éponine's "A Little Fall of Rain" or Thénardier's "Dog Eat Dog" - I was an odd child. Those one-woman shows instilled a love of theatre in me that has never left. Whenever a local company announces, or a touring company comes to town with one of those five cast albums, I am exceptionally excited.
There is a reason that Les Misérables is the longest running musical of all time. It is hopeful and beautiful in its dark setting and the sense of rebellion and companionship the audiences leave with, have made it a classic part of the theatre community in its 33 years.
I was able to attend the opening night performance when Broadway Across Canada brought this tragic tale of redemption and love to the Calgary stage.
When it comes to plot, the long and short of it is that Les Misérables (based on the novel by Victor Hugo) is about people. We focus on one man, Jean Valjean, who is released from prison after 19 years, seeking redemption and a new life - which he finds through a forgiving priest, a lost little girl, and a rebellion which is barely a footnote in history but is so important to the people who died for the cause.
Sounds fun, doesn't it? While it has its moments of loud, happy, comedic elements, this show is a tragedy through and through. I teared up several times and found myself sitting on the edge of my seat - despite my familiarity with the show. More than three decades later, it is still touching people.
That being said, Broadway Across Canada's production was fine. This is a show that has been performed so many times by so many actors that there is a formula to the characters and staging. I wasn't disappointed by the performance but nor was I floored by some of the choices that were made. I want people to see Les Mis because I consider it a staple of musical theatre and this production was a good representation of why I believe that.
Firstly, I want to applaud the crew. On a show with so many set and costume changes, and little things that make live theatre so thrilling, they are the unsung superheroes of the show; but technical difficulties that stop the show on opening night in a new city is not a simple task. From my experience in theatre, I know that the phrase "the show must go on" is not one to be taken lightly, so for something to happen backstage that would warrant calling a temporary stop in the middle of Act Two? That is worth another round of applause for all the people who make it happen backstage and solve problems we in the audience aren't even aware of.
Of course, as soon as the show resumed, the cast burst on stage with the same excitement I'd come to expect from them - some bringing more than others.
Nick Cartell's Jean Valjean was very energetic, constantly moving and making bold choices with his emotions. I loved the tone of his voice (especially his higher notes, which just soared) but his exaggerated performance often didn't match his scene partner's. It seemed like every line was accompanied by a new hand gesture; I will admit, I laughed out loud when he revealed his tattoo at the end of "Who Am I?" I couldn't connect with his emotional journey the way I did with his physical one because it seemed superficial.
I noticed a similar exaggeration from the actor playing Javert. I wasn't as invested in Josh Davis's performance as I wanted to be. His voice is unique and, similar to Cartell's soaring notes, I loved the clarity of his lower range. His movements weren't as enthusiastically performed as Valjean but they were very specific, and he almost spoke many of his lines - I think in an effort to get the information in time with the music. In the end, there was so much action and so little time to process that his death didn't mean as much as it should have.
Part of that, I will attribute to the pacing of the entire show. Claude-Michel Schönberg's music is beautiful; it's almost familiar but when the chorus comes together or a soloist hits a particular note, I get chills. From the first notes of "Work Song", I was in love with the music and the singers. However - and I noticed this the last time Broadway Across Canada brought the show - the pacing was too fast. There is a lot of information that needs to be conveyed through song - the entire show, in fact - and even knowing the lyrics the way I do, I had a difficult time understanding what the actors were saying. I also found that certain microphones like Valjean's were so loud, that all I could hear were "s"s thorough the speaker. It's not easy to emote while sing a mile-a-minute.
While the Students don't begin their journey until near the end of Act One, they all came in with this youthful energy that felt as though we'd been with them from the very beginning - especially Éponine. Emily Bautista was endearingly sweet as the heart broken, lovesick third wheel to Cosette and Marius (played by Jillian Butler and Joshua Grosso). From their first interaction I felt her pinning and desperation from my seat and understood her desire for just a simple sign of affection from Marius. If I am being honest, Cosette and Marius are not my favourite; I generally find them whiney and foolish but not this time. Grosso's approach to Marius as a sheepish, tongue-tied teenager and Butler's head strong, defiant Cosette was the bright light I needed amid the death and despair. Very refreshing. On a side note: Grosso had this really interesting character quirk that I've never seen before, where Marius constantly touched Éponine's face in excitement. I really liked it and it just made me sympathize with her even more.
The Thénardiers perhaps are my favourite characters in the show. They are random, greedy, and cunning in a way that's depicted as dirty and classless. I like that they have an understanding of their world and use it to survive by whatever means necessary while still enjoying themselves. I often find the actors playing them to be lewd and crass - sometimes just for a laugh - and a staunch contrast to the stoic, rebellious students. Allison Guinn and J Anthony Crane were exactly the way I expected them to be, and I liked their outlandish chemistry; with one contention that comes back to pacing. "Master of the House" is the first real introduction to the Thénardiers as we're welcomed to their inn and the patrons they dupe in order to make a few extra dollars. It's fast-paced and loud, distracting their guests from their thievery and tricks. I think the way to make the audience fall in love with these two is to bring us in on the joke: make us unwitting accomplices to all the horrible things they're doing. There was so much action during this scene that I lost track of where they were and had to spend time searching through the crowd of actors to find them. It made it difficult to enjoy their schemes when I didn't know what they were doing. That said, a stand out performance for me was Crane's performance of "Dog Eat Dog" where he stood in the sewers and bared his teeth to the world.
I really enjoyed the ensemble of this show. It is a lot of stopping and starting on stage, creating characters that are distinct but not overshadowing. I think they did a really good job of carrying the show through to the conclusion with little moments that made me giggle or touched my heart. For example Matt Moisey, playing one of the students Grantaire, had a heart breaking, very sobering, moment with Gavroche's body. Accompanied by what I'm affectionately calling Death Lighting¸ which is a fade from a dirty yellow to starch white, his cry was a harsh reminder of what these boys were fighting for and what it would cost them. This cast of actors on whole was very tight and seemed to work well together.
This production of Les Misérables is what I've come to expect from Broadway Across Canada: good, but I wonder if choices are made to change blocking or design simply to be different. In cases like this, my vote is that if it isn't broken, don't fix it. There's something comforting about classic theatre where the staging and the story are the same but an actor's interpretation might be slightly different. The singing was phenomenal, I enjoyed myself and, as I said, Les Mis is a staple of musical theatre which should be experienced at least once.
Shows like this Tour are an example of how to continue nostalgic theatre in a new yet familiar way. Whatever contentions I have about certain choices, this was a well-done performance. The set was amazing, the lighting fine tuned, and the music and cast went hand in hand (if a little fast paced). I truly believe this is a show worth seeing.
Les Misérables is playing at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium from July 17th to 22nd and then will be moving on to Denver, CO (from July 25th to August 5th) and beyond. Check https://calgary.broadway.com/shows/les-miserables-baa-so/ for ticket information.
Photo Credit: Matthew Murphy