Thursday 9 July 2015

Les Mis had 'em on their feet cheering

Backdrop to the musical : It is difficult if not impossible for 21st Century North American bourgeoisie of any age to think of themselves, realistically, as "wretched" like the folks in this synonymous musical. But most of us are hopeless romantics and tend to root for the underdog, particularly where class struggles and turf wars are involved. Add a few catchy tunes, flags waved deliriously, period piece costumes galore, an iconic woodcut of a forlorn waif to advertise it all, and Les Miserables is what you get. And what gets you! The show continues to pack in patrons to full houses : some 60 million folks have seen the play worldwide since it was premiered by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985 and outruns The Phantom of the Opera in London's West End to this day.

Semi-quick re-cap of the plot : The story, based on the Victor Hugo novel, is set amongst the sketchy outskirts of Paris circa 1830. The country has been in turmoil for 20 years since Napoleon met his Waterloo. In the words of Englishman Thomas Hobbes, life in those times was "solitary, nasty, brutish and short" for most folks. Abject poverty and a cholera outbreak didn't help much to cheer them up, and flagons of wine only fueled them so far, so long.

Main character Jean Valjean, Prisoner 24601, has been released from jail after 19 years -- five years for stealing bread to feed his starving sister's boy but 14 years tacked on by the gestapo-like Inspector Javert for various escape attempts. Javert finally paroles Valjean but remains ever-suspicious he will relapse.

When the Bishop of Digne offers Valjean food and shelter, Valjean proceeds to steal the bishop's silver wine goblets. Digne forgives him, claims to the gendarmerie he has gifted Valjean not only the cups but adds in a couple of silver candlesticks to boot. In return, he commands Valjean to start a new life of virtue. Inspector Javert, learning Valjean has violated his parole obligations, vows to spend his life getting his man behind bars once again. 

Valjean, meanwhile, follows the good Bishop's advice. He opens a factory and gives locals employment. He has also become the town's popular and respected mayor. But all is not 100% well. One of his workers, Fantine, has been fired. She has turned to prostitution to earn a few francs to feed herself. Her illegitimate daughter Cosette is a foster child, virtually a slave to some nasty innkeepers the Thenardiers and is treated worse than Cinderella. Valjean promises the dying Fantine he will look after Cosette, whom he then adopts. Shortly Cosette buds into maidenhood. She falls in love with a university activist named Marius who has swooned over her, too, much to the chagrin of Cosette's erstwhile buddy Eponine Thenardier : she also pines, achingly, futilely, for the charming Marius to requite her love.

Marius and a cadre of idealistic U. students, fresh off some tavern carousing, start a short-lived anti-monarchist revolution -- known as the Insurrection republicaine a Paris en June 1832. They man some makeshift barricades to protest their wretched state. With hope-&-prayer-&-pamphlets-&-bravado they encourage the townspeople to join them and rise up against their oppressors. As the insurrection falls, Valjean saves Marius from death and forgoes an opportunity to kill the vindictive Insp. Javert who is still chasing him. In the end both Javert and Valjean die -- as much from world-weary hearts as anything else. 

Structure of the show : Les Mis is a musical very much in the modus operandi of Andrew Lloyd Webber (but clearly absent Webber's non-pareil lyricist Tim Rice). The dialogue, thin though it may be, is sung as well as the tunes that stitch everything loosely together. The two primary characters Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy) and Javert (Warren Kimmel) carry the bulk of the dramatic action as well as the lion's share of featured pieces. Fantine (Rebecca Talbot) offers up a touching ballad "I Dreamed A Dream", as does Eponine (Jennie Neumann) in "On My Own". Comic relief is brought through the grimy grinning grifter innkeepers (Nicola Lipman \ Andrew Wheeler), while student leader Enjolras (Stuart Barkley) leads his buddies in some rousing fight songs as well as their futile Insurrection.

Standout singing : Murphy reprises the role of Valjean he performed in ACT's 2009 version of Les Mis. In his opening solo "Who Am I?" and later in his plea to God for release "Take me now, bring me home!", Murphy's tuneful tenor voice reminds one of balladeer Randy Edelman. But it is Warren Kimmel as Javert whose baritone pipes impress the most, particularly his wistful "Stars" in Act I.  Ms's Talbot and Neumann, as noted above, bring the strongest women's solo voices to the show. That said, two of Les Mis's catchiest and most popular tunes are the equally hilarious "Master of the House" and "Beggars at the Feast" by the Wheeler / Lipman duo as M. and Mme. Thenardier. Truly a giggle, both and both! Excellently mic'd each and all, the ensemble voices were sharply rehearsed and tuneful throughout, aided with just-right orchestral stylings supplied by the backstage Bruce Kellett \ Ken Cormier orchestra.

The show makes the show : While Les Mis doesn't provide as many opportunities for choreographed numbers as other shows she's worked on, Valerie Eastman's tavern scenes and Cosette's wedding feast numbers were crisp and clever, as was the short but catchy "Turning" piece featuring the women. Ted Roberts' set -- particularly the seemingly thrown-together barricade of wagon wheels, bedsteads, kitchen shelves, beer barrels et al -- was hi-lited, lit.&fig., by Marsha Sibthorpe's excellent moody lighting. Probably most eye-catching of all, however, had to be Alison Green's sumptuous costumes. The cut-away tails for the student rebels accentuated, symbolically, how much of the naif was at play in each of their idealistic frat-boy souls. 

Who gonna like : The nearly universal standing ovation given the cast on opening night July 8th was definitely not the kind of pro forma standing-o Vancouver audiences are so inclined to jump up for.  No indeed. The crowd's enthusiasm for the overall spectacle of sight and sound was genuine and spontaneous. It underscored the fact that this Arts Club big-stage musical adds mightily to the verve and juice of local stage excitement this summer. For fans of the contemporary musical showpiece genre, a hot Les Mis production in the air-cooled Stanley is a go-to gotta-see gotta-take-the-visitors night of fun and escape you'll all surely remember.

Particulars :  A musical by Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg, based on the novel by Victor Hugo. Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text by Alain Boublil & Jean-Marc Natel. Additional material by James Fenton. Adapted and originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Original orchestration by John Cameron. At the Stanley Theatre ACT stage on South Granville. Currently slated to end August 16th. Run-time 170 minutes, including a 20-minute intermission. Schedules and ticket information via or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production Team :  Director Bill Millerd.  Co-Musical Director \ Reorchestration \ Keyboard Programming Bruce Kellett.  Co-Musical Director / Keyboards Ken Cormier.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Set Designer Ted Roberts.  Lighting Designer Marsha Sibthorpe.  Costume Designer Alison Green. Original Sound Designer Chris Daniels.  Sound Consultant Andrew Tugwell.  Stage Manager Caryn Fehr.  Assistant Stage Manager Pamela Jakobs.  Assistant Stage Manager Colleen Totten.

The Orchestra :  Graham Boyle, percussion.  Henry Christian, trumpet \ flugelhorn.  Ken Cormier, keyboards.  Sasha Niechoda, keyboards \ keyboard programming.  Angus Kellett, keyboards.  Andrew Poirier, trombone.

Ensemble : Sarah Carle. Oliver Castillo. Caitlin Clugston. Eric Craig. Kevin Michael Cripps. Jocelyn Gauthier. Erik Gow. Jesse Martyn. Alexander Nicoll. Cathy Wilmot. Jacob Wolke. Sylvia Zaradic. 

Performers : Cameron Andres (Gavroche).  Stuart Barkley (Enjolras).  Kaylee Harwood (Cosette).  Warren Kimmel (Javert).  Nicola Lipman (Mme. Thenardier).  Jaime Olivia MacLean (Young Cosette).  Kieren Martin Murphy (Jean Valjean).  Jennie Neumann (Eponine).  Sayer Roberts (Marius).  Rebecca Talbot (Fantine).  Andrew Wheeler (M. Thenardier).  Eloise White (Young Eponine).


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