‘Les Misérables’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by September 25, 2017

‘Les Misérables’ was first published in 1862 as a French historical novel by Victor Hugo. It has now become a delightful, stirring, long-running musical, performed in over 40 countries and in 22 languages. It was written by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with the music composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg.

This incredible 3-hour production was a community partnership, of the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre and the Stray Cats Theatre Company. It ran in the 800 hundred-seat, Boardwalk Theatre, in the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, Mandurah for 5 shows, until Sunday 24th September,

The Saturday was a mammoth day, with a matinée and an evening show – 6 hours of performing. Very well done, especially to the orchestra and the main soloists.

 

The scene is Digne in 1815. A massive fishing boat (by David Hartley), with mast, rigging and bow spit – breathtakingly realistic – sways with the water current. Another Digne set was a church vestry. There followed 1825 scenes in Montreuil-sur-Mer, in an inn / brothel and a bakehouse. Then came the barricades of Paris, built in 1832, for the June Rebellion. The sets which were designed by the director, and the head scenery artist, Bronwyn White were built by Peter Francis, Simon Stacey, Mal Thompson, and Duncan Anderson; with the larger props built by Wayne Gale, Jodie and Glenn Mars, and Bronwyn White. The smaller props were sourced by Sheryl Gale, who was assisted by Michaela and Marcy Gosby, Pauline Lawrence, Melanie Paschkewitz, Cat Rippon and Sky Kettle.

The well-designed stills and video projections were the work of Alan White. Incidentally, for the voiceover, ‘Misérables’ is pronounced ‘miserabl’ no ‘eh’ on the end.

The precise spot operators were Caitlin Wainwright and Jarrad Thomas. This is a tiring and vastly under-rated job, until you see a bad one. Well done.

Headset microphone technicians Eibhlis Newman, Charlotte Roberts and Alex White were exemplary.

 

      In the town of Digne, Jean Valjean (Paul Hayward) after 19 years for stealing bread, is being released from prison. Rejected by society, an old Bishop, Myriel (Andy Vernie) takes him in and shows mercy. However, Valjean runs off with the church’s silverware. The police capture Valjean, but Myriel pretends that he has given it to Valjean.  The Bishop tells Valjean that his life has been ‘spared for God’, and that he should become an honest man. Shortly after, Valjean steals a coin from a young boy, who tells the police. If Valjean is caught again, as a reoffender he will be hung; and so, he assumes a new identity – Monsieur Madeleine. 

     An attractive Parisian grisette, and single parent, Fantine (Kristie Gray) is wrongly arrested. Her small child, Cosette (Ava Paschkewitz) who has been left in the day care of the local innkeepers, cruel Madame Thénardier (Sky Kettle) and corrupt Monsieur Thénardier (Jon Lambert), a mercenary couple of rogues, keep her and beat her. Their five children, include a daughter, Éponine (Bonny Elliott) and a son Gavroche (Leo Rimmer).

       Ten years later Valjean owns businesses and becomes Mayor. He confronts the avid police inspector, Javert (Chris Gerrish) – who had been a guard in Valjean’s prison – over Fantine’s harsh punishment. Javert sees Valjean rescuing a man, Fauchelevent, trapped under a cartwheel in Paris, but Valjean escapes again. Javert recognises Valjean the Mayor, and tells the authorities, but respectable Valjean denies Javert’s ravings and demands the release of Fantine. Fantine finds work at Monsieur Madeleine’s bakery, but a female supervisor (Cat Perez) discovers that she has an illegitimate daughter, and Fantine is sacked. Fantine is constantly harassed by Bamatbois (Joshua Towns).

      With the Thénardiers’ constant demands for money, Fantine becomes ill. After much financial dealing, Valjean rescues Cosette (Lisa Taylor) now an adult, from the Thénardiers. Valjean takes Cosette to her in the hospital room, but Javert arrives, and again announces that Valjean is an escaped convict. Valjean is sent back to prison, but when he escapes, Valjean he treats Cosette as his daughter.

       The Thénardiers’ own daughter Éponine (Eloise Kirk), was pampered as a child, and understood Cosette’s miserable situation in the house. However, Éponine sadly becomes another street kid.

       In the park, Cosette meets a young law student, Marius (Jake Garner) who wrongfully believes that the wicked innkeeper saved his father’s life. Cosette falls in love with this anti-Orléanist. Marius is desperate to find his love, Cosette, not realising that Éponine is madly in love with him too. Éponine disguising herself as a boy, manipulates Marius into going to the barricades, hoping that she and Marius will die there together. After Éponine stops a bullet aimed at him, Marius discovers this ‘man’ is Éponine, dressed in men’s clothes.

        Charismatic Enjolrus (Paul Spencer), the leader of the Paris uprising, has regretfully enlisted a drunk, Grantaire (Oliver Clare – also main male understudy) who idolises Gavroche, the eldest son of the Thénardiers.  Gavroche has been a street urchin, but now fights on the barricades. A medical student Combeferre (Alex White), Marius’ closest companion, and Courfeyrac (Nicholas Gaynor) join ‘the barricades’.

        Javert turns up at the barricades, pretending to be revolutionary, but one day, Gavroche spots him amongst their followers, and informs Enjolrus that Javert is a spy. Later, Gavroche and is killed recovering bullets from the dead. A medical student, Joly (Matthew Lester) now becomes the sentry at the barricade, and his friend Feuilly (Braeden Geuer), who is one of the few in the group who is not a student, but a simple workingman is proud to join.

        Valjean captures Javert, but tells him that despite all Javert’s dirty tricks, that he will release him. Javert commits suicide by jumping from a bridge (clever effect).

        Marius climbs to the top of the barricade, with a torch in one hand, and a powder keg in the other, he threatens to blow up the barricade. On hearing this, the soldiers retreat from the barricade. (These barricades were not simply heaps of wood, but contained genuine furniture and dying bodies).

     Much later, Marius slowly recovers from his injuries, and with Cosette, makes wedding preparations, Valjean endows them with a fortune of nearly 600,000 francs.  

 

The acting soloists included Scott Baggaley, Cat Rippon, Judi Johnson, Bailey Bridgeman-Peters, Rob Kettle, Jo Bickford, Tashlin Church, Elizabeth Willow, Robbie Fieldwick, Tannah Pridmore, Jodie Mars, Shevonne Scudamore, Renee Bickford, Amy Rattray, Megan Burne, David Major, Rhiannon Garnham, Grace Dennis, Jefferson Nguyen, Bronwyn White, Clea Purkis, Patrick Dawes, Leigh Hunter and Maren Gosby. The chorus had a further 60 enthusiastic artists.

Probably WA’s best musical director, Karen Francis is never happy just to get a show ‘on the road’. She strives for – and demands – quality from every section of her production; and because of the love and respect that follows her, she gets it. I have recently heard of directors struggling to get a cast of ten together, and yet here, Francis has managed to select around a hundred, quality performers, many of whom have travelled massive distances to attend rehearsals and performances, just to be in one of her shows.

Every scene is like an artwork, Karen has a wonderfully artistic eye, with the grouping of the actors in each of the large scenes, combined with her magnificent choice of lighting, the show looks like a series of artworks from the Louvre.

Choreographer, Lisa Taylor, has achieved a miracle with each number being packed with action and perfectly in step. There was a sequence at the end of Act One, when rather than have the peasants simply marching, she designed an interweaving effect that created a more urgent and dramatic outcome to the mass. Amazing.

The vocal director Kristie Gray, assisted by Jodie Mars, had every single performer belting out the choruses. No half-hearted effort allowed. Their bodies and lungs went into every number, even with the orchestra thrashing out the melodies of the battles, the singers could be heard clearly and powerfully above it. All the lead singers, especially Paul, Chris and Kristie herself, a local bunch of ‘amateurs’, leaving the audience gasping.

Then there is the song that we all anticipate, the delightful ‘I Dreamed a Dream,’ so often sung without an ounce of emotion. Eloise was magnificent, equal to the best, Susan Boyle (yes smile, but just listen to it). We must not forget the other end of the scale, the fun but equally tricky to perform songs from the Thénardiers! Sky and Jon captured the characters and delivery precisely, the audience loved every second.

Musical director Joshua Haines, assisted by Matthew Manning, should certainly be proud.

Stage Manager, Jennifer Friend assisted by Pauline Lawrence, guided the hardworking stage crew, Libby Askew, Wayne Gale and Ruby Liddelow. The big question is, ‘where did the 4-metre-high and 6-metre-wide boat disappear to, when the wings are minimal? There were some heavy pieces of scenery, and numerous props – such as a dozen trestle tables with bread dough – to move silently behind the proscenium gauze. Planning the stage exits of 100 performers without a queue – remarkable. Congratulations to all.

John Cameron’s wonderful orchestrations were conductor Liam House, and the 20-piece orchestra comprised Timothy Walker, David Lawrence, Luis Tasso Santos and Merina Chen on reeds, Aishah Chadwick-Stumpf and Finley Cooper on horns, Zoe McGivern on trumpet, Ned Holland on trombone, Ruth Klein-Cook and Amanda Curci on violin, Darsha Kumar and Evie Dods on cello, Greg Critchley on double bass, Joshua Haines and Bronwen Herholdt on keyboard, Mark Beasy on percussion with the pit singers being Sian Dhu and Sean Williams.

Karen Francis’ lighting design and sound effects were skilfully and faultlessly operated by the theatre’s staff, despite there being pages of cue sheets.

Costume co-ordinator, Kerry Tarbuck oversaw a team of 12, including Linda Lowry, Catherine O’Brien, Sheryl Gale, Rochelle Hayward, Michelle Thompson, Pat Francis, Carole Anderson, Cat Rippon, Tashlin Church, Cathy Wainwright, Marjorie Pasnin, and Diane Clare. From the bawdy brothel girls, to the smart bakers, the clothes of the peasants to those of at the opulent wedding scene, who knows how many hundreds of costumes there were? Again, the outfits were not simply adequate, but of top stage design and construction. The dress was completed by the makeup, the co-ordinators were Jodie Mars, Cat Rippon, Monique Kinnest and Cat Perez.

I appreciate a quality programme (Jon Lambert) when the production is first class.

What is the difference between a Karen Francis community theatre, musical show and a million-dollar professional production? Virtually nothing. The professionals had slightly more glitz. This musical has several love stories contained within the drama, and so a most important factor is to create heart-breaking, sensitivity. Yes, you got a many a tear!

What more can a production ask for than full houses, a brilliant cast, enthusiastic audiences and the whole house giving a standing ovation?