Thursday, September 16, 2010

'Les Miserables' Returns to Barbican - The Review

'Les Miserables' concerns love and bravery in 19th century France during the revolutionary struggles. Jean Valjean, released on parole after 19 years at hard labor, finds that the ‘ticket-of-leave’ he must display by law, condemns him to be an outcast. Only the saintly Bishop of Digne treats him kindly and Valjean, embittered by years of hardship, repays him by stealing some silver. Valjean is caught and brought back by the police, and is astonished when the Bishop lies to save him, also giving him two precious candlesticks. Valjean decides to start life anew. Things go well but eight years later, an encounter with a face from the past threatens everything he now holds dear.

‘Les Mis’ as it is affectionately known returns home to the Barbican where it first premiered in 1985. Twenty-five years later, the musical is now revitalized for a new generation. Originally revolutionary (or oft criticized) for the swift storytelling of the epic novel by Victor Hugo and design, the musical is awash in new found drama, romance and excitement.
Katie Hall (Cosette), Gareth Gates (Marisu), John Owen-Jones (Valjean)
This is a stellar cast well chosen to document the musical as it winds its way through the United Kingdom on a 25th Anniversary Tour. It is possible this revision could become the definitive version hereafter.

But the biggest and foremost key to the success of this tour is in the casting. Always problematic in such a large ensemble, one or two poor or adequate performances always distracted me from the overall enjoyment of the show. Not here. Drawing from both ‘Les Mis’ veterans and a young talented cast, no stone was left unturned in finding the right actors.
The Thenardiers (Ashley Artus, Lynne Wilmot)
The superlatives continue in the production design. Most of the costumes have remained the same but a change in Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosettes’s costume from the black matronly and almost convent-like clothing in the original has been replaced by subdued but shimmering flowing gowns that heightens the romance between her and the young revolutionary Marius. In an instant this one single change with scenes taking place in the garden or balcony combined with appealing performances by Katie Hall as Cosette and Gareth Gates as Marius brings new life to their story that bridges Valjean to that of the young revolutionaries.

The role that is almost always ill cast is Marius. The performance by Gates is at times jerky as if he is searching for the conductor but as far as Marius performances go, he is among the better ones looking dashing and naïve in his romance with Cosette.
Rosalind James (Eponine)
Earl Carpenter brings a Javert that projects a weariness absent in other portrayals but yet remains faithful to his duty of the law. His last scene is creatively changed from prior versions in the use of sets, projections and lighting to offer an improved illusion depicting his fall into the swollen Seine river.

Rosalind James as Eponine is a true find. Almost keeping with the description in the novel, her Eponine is raw, gritty and forlorn. She in turn renders a version of “On My Own” that is heartbreaking.
Madalena Alberto (Fantine)
Madalena Alberto finds the nuance in Fantine that is often played to overwrought dimensions. In her “I Dreamed a Dream” a slight hint of a smile shows she finds solace in a world that will never be, a world she lives in her mind only to be brought back to her tortured reality by song’s end.

Last but not least, I have seen John Owen-Jones as Valjean at the Palace Theatre and he continues the tradition in a string of top-notch Valjean’s. Strong in voice and performance from start to end, his delivery of “Bring Him Home” is particularly inspiring.

Even the scenes of the Thenardiers (Ashley Artus, Lynne Wilmot) are re-thought a bit instead of reducing them further into pure caricatures of comic relief.

Less a throw away tune, the song "Drink With Me" becomes an angry indictment of the predicament of the young revolutionaries.
Jon Robyns (Enjolras), John Owen Jones (Valjean), Gareth Gates (Marius)
From the opening scene, the changes for this new version are apparent, well thought out and appropriate. For the opening scene instead of the chain gang, Valjean is now one of several prisoner oarsmen. In another scene a small change heavily re-dramatizes the death of the street urchin Gavroche. The scene now takes place off stage. When the fatal shot is fired, the impact is far more tragic than when it was presented front stage and center.

Gone is the revolving stage and the production never suffers nor is slowed by the change in stagecraft. New settings include walls that are part of the proscenium slide across the stage and meet and become the walls, balcony and doors of a Paris slum.

Earl Carpenter (Javert)
Projections inspired by the paintings of the author Hugo bring added depth to certain scenes at the same time turning them into a picture come to life. The tunnels beneath Paris seem endless as Valjean searches for a safe haven for the injured Marius. They also make the dirt, darkness and despair of 19th century France more apparent than ever.

Was there a drawback? Only that performances at the Barbican were for a strict limited engagement. Fortunately this production is the template for other planned anniversary productions. The U.S. tour has been announced and American audiences will also experience this breathtaking re-telling of the classic musical.

Watching this production at the Barbican felt like watching something special and new again. Hard work was placed into the rethinking of this production both in design and performances and the result is glorius. Standing ovations are rare in London and a standing ovation here was well deserved.


Where:  Barbican Theatre, London (Tube: Barbican)
When:  Mon-Sat 7:30pm; Thu & Sat 2:30pm
Running Time:  3hrs
Ticket Prices:  £10 - £65 (premium seats 85)
Opening:  Sep 14, 2010 for strict limited engagement of 22 performances
Closing:  Oct 2, 2010 

John Owen-Jones (Valjean)
Katie Hall (Cosette)
Gareth Gates (Marius)
All photos used for illustration purposes only.


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