Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Redux: The Mirvish Production's Les Misérables

There are several interesting story lines to Mirvish Productions’ revival of the grand musical Les Misérables, which opened last week at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre. First there is the fact that it has been rethought and reconfigured from its previous incarnations, in Toronto and elsewhere, by directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, and designer Matt Kinley. Then there is the return to Toronto of the leading man, Ramin Karimloo, raised in Peterborough and Richmond Hill, who went to England to pursue a career in musical theatre, and who eventually starred in London’s West End with the title role in Phantom of the Opera. And of course there is the musical’s story itself, inspired by Victor Hugo’s epic novel, a tale encompassing love, revenge, revolution, social justice, politics, poverty, crime and punishment, all delivered by an enormous – and in this case enormously talented – cast of characters. The redesign, said to be inspired by Hugo’s own illustrations for the novel, is wonderful. In the magic-box set, a variety of “locations” – homes, street scenes, an inn, a cathedral and assorted city buildings, as well as the famous barricade and the eerie sewers of Paris – are established with intricate precision, all supplemented and loaned detail by large-scale back projections.

Karimloo is superb as released prisoner Jean Valjean, who served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, and who is required by law to show his ticket-of-leave to prospective employers, only to discover that no one will hire a former convict. Karimloo invests Valjean with both dignity and passion, and also possesses a magnificent singing voice. From Valjean’s opening "Soliloquy," through his signature tune, "Who am I?", to his heart-breaking rendition of "Bring Him Home," in which he pleads with God to let a young man live, Karimloo shows a large and expressive voice, backed up by a great deal of acting talent. This is a performance to savour.

Ramin Karimloo as Valjean
The story is complex, but well told and accessible. The desperate Valjean is given a bed and a bite to eat by a compassionate bishop (Andrew Love), and repays him by stealing silver plates and cups. Caught by the implacable policeman Javert (Earl Carpenter), Valjean is given a break by the bishop, who tells Javert that he gave the silver to Valjean, and that, in fact, the former prisoner had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks he had also been given. Javert is suspicious, but can’t call the bishop a liar. Eight years later, Valjean has changed his name and become a well-thought-of businessman and the town’s mayor. When one of his former employees, Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc), falls on hard times and is on her deathbed, he swears he will take care of her daughter, Cosette (the young Cosette was played by Saara Chaudry on opening night; the grown-up role is played by Samantha Hill). Javert recognizes Valjean and is about to arrest him, but he escapes again.

Cosette has been boarded with the Thénardiers, innkeepers, thieves and con artists, who use her as cheap labour while spoiling their own daughter, Éponine (Ella Ballentine as the child on opening night; Melissa O’Neil is the grown-up). After eight years, Valjean, once again prosperous, appears and “buys” Cosette back from the Thénardiers to take her back with him to Paris where, for the next nine years, he raises her in comfortable middle-class respectability.

Meanwhile, there is insurrection brewing. A group of young men and women, including Éponine, plot a revolution. One of the revolutionaries, Marius (Perry Sherman), falls in love with Cosette at first sight. Somehow not noticing that Éponine is in love with him, he asks her to act as his messenger, carrying love letters and arranging meetings. But before the affair can amount to anything, the popular leader General Lamarque dies, politics heat up and the students take to the barricades.

(Photo by Michael le Poer Trench)
Not surprisingly, the young rebels all die when attacked by the army and the police, and Valjean manages to carry the badly wounded Marius into the Paris sewers, where Thénardier robs the two of them as they lay unconscious. All’s well that ends well, of course, and Marius and Cosette are finally married, the Thénardiers get their comeuppance, Javert – finally admitting that Valjean is a good man and doesn’t deserve to be harassed – kills himself. Valjean goes into hiding again, and years later, as he lays dying, tells Cosette the story of her life.

That’s a lot of plot, but it unfolds briskly and with unremitting drama. The cast is excellent from top to bottom, but for me the standouts, besides Karimloo, include: Earl Carpenter, who somehow invests Javert with considerable humanity amid his unbending righteousness; Cliff Saunders and Lisa Horner as the hilariously nasty Thénardiers, master and mistress of physical comedy and purveyors of most of the show’s much-needed laughs; Melissa O’Neil as Éponine, singing her heart out and delivering a wholly credible range of emotions; Genevieve Leclerc’s Fantine, who stands up for herself and her daughter, and somehow keeps her pride even as she is forced by circumstances to sell her jewelry, her hair and, finally, her body.

There are good reasons that some musicals become classics, and all of those reasons are on display in this production of Les Misérables. Fans of the show will be thrilled, and if you haven’t seen it yet, this 25th-anniversary production is a superb place to begin. But beware. It could become a habit.

- Jack Kirchhoff is a Toronto arts writer and editor.

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