Theatre review: Les Misérables (Sydney)

Dave and I went to see the new Sydney production of this show recently – he has never seen it on stage before, although he has of course seen the musical version movie.  On the other hand I have seen it at least 6 times before on stage (it may be 7, I lost count), including several previous productions / casts.  Original Australian production (1989 Sydney cast, both versions), original Broadway production (in 1991), 10th anniversary Australian Production (1997), plus very familiar with the International soundtrack which blends cast members from around the world.

Do you hear the people sing?
Do you hear the people sing?

Overall, I am torn about this new production.  The music was good (ie the orchestra).  I thought the new set design, incorporating digital images in place of the revolving stage was good – although there were definitely times when I missed the revolving stage.  The stage direction seemed to make a lot of changes that were borrowed from the film version.  I guess that was ok – although the prologue in the warship rather than in the mining colony was imo unnecessary.  Not only was it a change from the story, it then negated how Valjean was able to set up in business mining the same material.

But oh my – the individual performances?  Incredibly disappointing.  The review in The Australian said that the cast has no show stealers, that “cast members don’t impose their personalities on their roles. Rather, they channel them.”  I feel that is giving most of them too much credit to be honest.  Some of them felt like ghastly caricatures, and were painful to watch – and listen too.  Also while the overall sound of the ensemble was really good, there was another issue – everyone was fast, way ahead of the music.  Not just the ensemble, but soloists too.

Jean Valjean (Simon Gleeson) started off badly out of tune and out of time.  He didn’t seem to look comfortable on stage until about halfway through the first act, and only his his stride at the end of it.  Not great from the lead of the show.  Inspector Javert (Hayden Tee) was vocally very uneven, without the dark shade to his voice that the other Javerts I have seen, and his duets with Valjean in the first act were very unbalanced.  We both thought it was quite ironic that as his appearance transformed throughout the show to become more like the incomparable Philip Quast, his performance got better and better.

Fantine (Patrice Tipoki) was just dreadful – not even close to hitting the right notes in I dreamed a dream, let alone in her death scene.  It was painfully bad. At times excruciatingly bad.  When Debra Byrne ripped up the stage with her raw emotions as Fantine, when she sang about hope and love then abandonment and destitution, it was utterly believable.  Rachel Beck was less raw but still had a wonderful energy in the 10th Anniversary production.  Even Anne Hathaway provided the absolute showstopping moment with this song in the movie.  Tipoki was not even close, and so badly out of tune I just couldn’t wait for it to be over.  I’m a soprano, so have difficulty singing a song this low myself, but I think I could have done a better job (she was – surprisingly – constantly sharp).

Likewise, Marius (Euan Doige) and Enrolras (Chris Durling) were all over the place pitch-wise, with Marius being so insipid in all his actions it was just disappointing – very weak singing voice, and acting that was fair at best.  And for those wondering, no I am not comparing him to Eddie Redmayne (who I also found rather insipid tbh).  Rather, I had the experience of seeing both Simon Bourke and Peter Cousins play Marius in the original Australian production, and David Campbell in the 90s revival, and all three were far superior to the current performer.  Peter Cousins also gave a great comic performance when he played the role, so the direction taken by Doige was not particularly unique.  I think Durling was better than Doige, but he lacked the stage presence to be a believable revolutionary leader.  And well – hard to live up to I know – but I did see Anthony Warlow play Enjolras 4 times.  Acknowledged to be the very best in the role worldwide (as Quast was with Javert), his incredible opera-trained lyric baritone voice graces my international cast recording.  Scott Irwin (10th Anniversary production) was not up to the dizzying heights of Warlow, but still gave an excellent performance and was a convincing leader of men (or students at least!).

And oh – The Thénardiers!  Thénardier is actually my favourite character, I have wanted to play him for years (well he has more fun than his wife!).  I have seen some fantastic depictions of this pair.  But unfortunately this production does not rank with them.  Thénardier was played as a buffoon, it was just heartbreaking.  There was none of the subtle light and shade that the wonderful William Zappa had (he played in both the original and 10th anniversary productions), or even the finesse of Sacha Baron Cohen from the movie.   Mme Thénardier was little better, and Master of the House was such a disappointment all round.  And even worse, there was no sinister undercurrent to Thénardier, which the role needs to offset the comedy, which meant that the chills I normally get from Dog eat dog were very much absent.  It was like the directors had no understanding of the characters at all, and so turned them into grotesque buffoons.

The absolute standout of the principals was Eponine (Kerrie Anne Greenland) – she was in time, in tune, projected well, and had a great stage presence.  Her two songs – the solo On My Own and the duet A little fall of rain – were the kind of show stopping performances I wanted to see (and which Fantine’s solo sadly was not).  They were the kind of performances I was expecting, based on my past experiences with this show.  It is her first professional musical production, and I hope that I see her perform equally well in other productions to come.

One change I did like was with two of the secondary characters.  I really liked the relationship and dynamic they showed with Grantaire and Gavrosh. In past productions Grantaire has been a drunken sot who is a foil to the naive idealism of Enrolras (and that works really well too). However by pairing him with Gavroche I think it changed his motivations, and made the character more interesting and I think desperate. 

The stage:  the digital images were really spectacular.  However there were times when I really missed the revolving stage.  One was when the ensemble were doing a very odd marching step during Do you hear the people sing? – they were marching on the spot then would take a big step forward.  Then march on the spot for a while again, then step forward.  It created a really odd, jerky movement that I found distracting.  Whereas in the past they were all marching forward – you could see them taking steps – but because the stage was revolving they didn’t actually leave their spot until the end.  It was smoother and more natural looking.  The other time was with the fall of the barricade.  Having the stage turn around to show the other side, with Enjolras dead, upsidedown and holding the tricoleur flag, and then revolving again so it was gone – this was one of the most iconic moments of the show for me.  While they kind of recreated the imagery with Enrolras’s body on a wagon, it didn’t have the same visual impact, like a punch to the stomach.

Overall I am glad that I saw this version of Les Misérables, but unlike previous productions I can’t see myself hurrying back to see it again.

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