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Theatre review: Les Miserables lacks some of its emotional punch

The real star of this production of Les Misérables is its orchestra (and one stand-out performance), but unless they get the sound level in the QE Theatre under control you may want to consider bringing along some ear plugs.

Based on Victor Hugo’s sweeping story set in the early 19th century, Les Misérables tells the tale of Jean Valjean and his quest for redemption after being released from his nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread.  Set against the backdrop of the French uprisings of the time, the story also focuses on the students who find themselves behind barricades, literally putting their lives on the line for change.

The nearly three hour show is a massive undertaking spanning some seventeen years from Valjean’s release to the final student confrontation at the barricades.  The trick here is to keep the show in perpetual motion as it moves through its huge story and this 25th anniversary edition delivers in that regard.  But while the show never feels its 180 minutes, its break-neck pace does lose some of the emotional punch of its story and Herbert Kretzmer’s rich and evocative lyrics.  Fantine’s death seems to come so quickly, there is no time to grieve and reach for what should be the first tissues of the evening.  Scene after scene, the pace is so relentless that there is few opportunities for any emotional connection.

It doesn’t help that much of the singing is unintelligible.  The cast delivers melodically, but understanding what the characters are singing about should be as much a goal as them being able to master Claude-Michel Schonberg’s beautiful music.  Perhaps it was the overpowering nature of the orchestra at times or the operatic nature of the music itself that seems to have stymied much of this touring cast.

Proving that it can be done though is Briana Carlson-Goodman as the older Epinone who not only brings a strong emotional connection, but does so with the hands-down strongest vocals of the night.  Carlson-Goodman also manage to elicit the only tears of the night, but it is as much in knowing this will be the last time we see her on stage as it is her death.

In a welcome bit of colour-blind casting, Devin Ilaw brings a beautiful tenor to his role of the student Marius and proving that it is in the quieter moments that this production really shines, Peter Lockyer manages a beautiful “Bring Him Home” sitting almost motionless on the barricade.

Surprisingly the usual show-stopping “Master of the House” failed to live up to its potential last night, but Andrew Varela makes the most of his “Soliloquy” thanks to his booming voice and some applause-worthy theatrical magic.

Members of the cast Les Miserables. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Members of the national touring company of Les Miserables. Photo by Kyle Froman.

Despite overpowering the actors on many occasions, the orchestra under the direction of Lawrence Goldberg is simply top-notch.  Easily handling Schonberg’s music, it made the many unintelligible lyrics almost bearable.

In this 25th anniversary edition, the show’s turntable set has been mothballed for set pieces that move in from the wings or fly from above.  A liberal use of Victor Hugo’s own paintings gives a dark and almost surreal look to proceedings and in some cases is quite simply gorgeous as it used to show motion.  There were a few lighting and sound glitches on opening night, but hopefully those will be ironed out quickly.

Admittedly one of the few mega-musicals that I will make an effort to see whenever possible (I count this as the fifth version including the recent movie version), this production failed to have the same emotional impact as it has in the past.  Given the reaction from the opening night audience though it didn’t seem to be much of a problem for the majority; I am perhaps just dreaming of times gone by.

Les Miserables

Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg.  Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.  Directed by James Powell.  Musical direction by Lawrence Goldberg.  A Broadway Across Canada presentation.  On stage at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre through June 23, 2013.  Visit http://broadway.com for tickets and information.

Mark Robins on Google+

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