After 25 Years, Les Mis still hits the mark
In many ways, Les Miserables is the anti-musical. It is dark, depressing, tragic, and many of its songs are in minor keys. Yet, perhaps that’s what makes it so iconic and relevant still today. I had the honour of seeing Broadway Across Canada’s touring production, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of Alain Boubil’s and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic story. This adaptation was co-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.
Watching this performance, it is easy to see why Les Mis is so beloved by so many theatre-goers, both young and old; though students in particular seem to have a soft spot for this revolutionary tale. Perhaps it is because the themes of struggle, class struggle, and yes romance, still resonate today. Set during one the most fascinating parts of recent history – The French Revolution – Les Mis is, like so many other Hugo tales, a love story set against the backdrop of tragedy.
The cast was brilliant. Peter Lockyear gives an incredibly restrained, nuanced, and subtle performance as Jean Valjean. As was particularly impressed by how he aged on stage. The play takes place over twenty years and Lockyear starts off with brown hair and by the time the show ends it is virtually white. However, the audience hardly notices it.
It is unfair to compare Lockyear – or any Valjean for that matter – to the great Colm Wilkinson as each performance is unique. I will say, though, that Andrew Varela’s Javert was far superior to Russell Crowe’s. Varela has been with this show since its inception in 2011 and is it quite remarkable that he pulls off an above-average performance after doing it for two years.
The other standout for me was Jason Forbach as Enjolras. Now I might be biased, since Enjolras is my favourite character in the show, but nonetheless I felt that Forbach really embraced the fighting attitude that Enjolras is famous for. Also of note was Gaten Matarazzo, one of two Gavroches, who was quite remarkable given his age and the maturity of the role.
The toughest character to portray always seems to be Fantine. While I did enjoy Genevieve Leclerc’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream”, I did feel at times that her performance was a little forced. Same goes for Briana Carlson-Goodman’s Eponine. Julie Benko – who had the honour of singing at this year's Oscars with the movie cast of Les Mis – really nailed Cossette.
Beyond the characters and the actors’ performances, there is a reason why Les Miserables was outstanding: It is timeless. Many musicals have one, possibly two songs that they are known for; Les Mis has at least four, and all of them are very different. There is the aforementioned “I Dreamed a Dream” – the diva’s aria which has become a staple of the modern musical. There is the revolutionary “Do You Hear the People Sing”, whose lyrics might not be out of place in a folk or punk song. Valjean’s introspective “Who am I” – which comes up multiple times in various forms – is the type of piece we often don’t get to hear: the male ballad. Then of course there is “One Day More”, the iconic medley that ends the first act. It is this song that really embodies what the musical is all about.
Great cast, fantastic set, superb direction, and a wonderful live orchestra: Broadway across Canada’s production of Les Miserables keeps Hugo’s legacy alive.
Les Miserables was written by Victor Hugo and first published in 1862. It was adapted for the stage by Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel and Claude-Michel Schonberg. Herbert Kretzmer later wrote the English libretto. Trevor Nunn and John Caird adapted it into English.
Les Mis is truly international. Below is a video is a video from the 10th anniversary concert in 1995, which has 17 different Valjeans from various countries all singing together – including the original Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as well as Canada’s Michael Burgess.