Do You Hear The People Sing? Les Mis in Australia

Do you hear the people sing?  The famous lines from the Schonberg / Boublil musical are plastered all over Melbourne, on trams, lamp posts and most importantly on the front of the historic Her Majesty’s Theatre.  This is the first time since the late 1980’s that the musical has been staged in Australia following the resurgence of interest in the piece after Australia’s own Hugh Jackman took on the leading role of Jean ValJean in the Oscar nominated movie.

The movie adaptation has re-fuelled interest around the world and the new staging (first reviewed in Roberta’s review of the Broadway revival) moves the storyline on quite a bit, filling in what can be seen as gaping holes in the original staging’s plot line. Additionally, showing clear comparisons between the movie and stage means that audiences who have only seen the movie will be more familiar with the new staging.  In particular, the opening scenes of the convicts and Fantine’s descent into prostitution bear close resemblance to the film and make it much clearer what is happening; a more direct line to Victor Hugo’s masterpiece can also be seen here. The most noticeable change is the absence of the famous turntable which adds nothing to the barricade scene, rather the emotional impact of the end of the barricade siege is lessened.  However, to counter this, the tunnel projection used in the sewer scenes is excellent.  Musically, extra music strengthens the audience perception of the love that Jean ValJean has for Cosette.  Equally, the relationship of Eponine to the Thenardiers is clearer.

And what of the performances? Spectacular! Simon Gleeson’s Jean ValJean manages to be both robust and vulnerable, particularly in the closing stages where frail old age has overtaken his extraordinary strength.  His performance was a highlight of the show, yet his rendition of the loving and tender Bring Him Home left me cold; others think that the performance is up there with the best of them.  Having said that, sniffles could be heard throughout the theatre in the final stages when JVJ is reunited with Cosette on his deathbed.  Patrice Tipoki is wonderful as Fantine, portraying her piteous descent into poverty with heart wrenching emotion.  Hayden Tee is a fearsome Javert, Kerry-Ann Greenland is a cheeky Eponine and had the best voice of the entire cast and Trevor Astley and Lara Mulcahy did a fantastic job of being horrible to little Cosette.

Overall, this is a fantastic production with some nice new touches to keep the show updated (the candles on stage during Empty Chairs and Empty Tables is an inspired idea). Costumes are brighter and in the Melbourne production, a bright blue, borrowed from Victor Hugo’s own artwork seems to convey the idea that the piece has been freshened for a 2014 audience: no mean feat after a nearly 30 year exposure on the world stage.  Currently running in Melbourne is an exhibition at the State Library of Victoria, From Page to Stage, an exploration of the original novel, movie and stage musical.  Hopefully, this fascinating exhibition will move onto London or New York and if it does, it’s well worth a visit.  Quite apart from the chance to see Hugo’s manuscript, you get the chance to see Alfie Boe’s virtuoso performance in the 25th anniversary concert.

Thank you for reading this and thanks also to my fellow Alfie fan Margie (and her lovely husband Troy, not such a fan!) and two Les Mis fans, Rob and Erin, who are not remotely interested in Alfie – no accounting for taste – and this review is an amalgamation of all our thoughts.  To end, here is a video of the Aussie cast:

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