The longest-running musical in West End’s history continues to invite audiences from all over the world to join the barricades. Guillermo Názara tells us about his experience watching the new production of Boublil and Schoenberg’s internationally renowned masterpiece, to let us know if the dream can still be dreamed.
So dark, so dark and deep… the secrets that you keep. But it’s no secret that a musical which almost every critic in town loathed when it opened has turned out to be the longest-running production (excluding The Mousetrap) in West End’s history. Often creatives state there’s no formula for a show to succeed, but the ingredients for this one are quite evident: just take a bunch (or a bucket) of some of the finest lyrics ever written for this genre, 3-hours (plus some additional bars) of a powerfully alluring score and use them to adapt Victor Hugo’s over one-thousand-page masterpiece. And there you go! You’ve got yourself an international hit – both commercially and artisticly. Pretty easy, right?
Jokes apart (sorry, that’s as good as I can get today…), the thing is that Les Misérables is by far one of the best overcome challenges music theatre has ever witnessed. By the time of its first London performance, nobody would expect that a production dealing with such gloomy themes could be appealing for general audiences – let alone remain onstage for nearly 40 years non-stop. But surprisingly enough (to just a few, that is), critics can be… not so right sometimes, and viewers have proven superb taste when selecting this as a fave – since there are many reasons why this work, and this new version too, make of it a definite must-go.
Set during some of France’s most convoluted moments, its intense storyline deals with such inspiring and touching topics like forgiveness, understanding and, overall, the ability of love to overpower hatred and prejudice. Issues that now seem fashionable (and obligatory) for every new narrative were already incorporated, and probably better executed, both in Hugo’s crowning piece (also panned by critics by the time of publication) and the musical itself. You don’t need to be a convict on the loose or a poor dying mother to fall for this characters, and even go through their very burden as if it was somehow part of your own. It’s no coincidence that the same phenomenon happens repeatedly throughout the play, as the skill to make your spectators connect with people so different to themselves (sensing they share some sort of common life experiences) can only happen through one particular kind of spell – the one that comes from brilliant storytelling. And in this case, also a magnificent adaptation of the source material.
But as summers fly on and on, the shine of a lustrous piece can easily fade – and so it had. Even though Les Miz was not widely known for having massive sets or impressive special effects, it’s also true that the original production had been looking dated for a while. Hence, a major renovation was much needed. Coming from the 12-year-ago 25th anniversary UK tour, the job has been done thoroughly and it has clearly paid off.
The beloved (yet a bit overrecurring) revolving stage is now gone and replaced by more props and physical sets, apart from projections on the backdrop as an enhancement mechanism. Those who know me are aware of how I often despise the use of the latter, which I tend to attribute to a lack of imagination and a low budget. This is not the case. Just like a masterful picture depends on layers of hues and shades to achieve its purpose, the foggy drawings (made by Hugo himself) displayed at the bottom work as the finishing strokes of an intricate painting, which now exudes the lavishness its predecessor didn’t – at least not to that extent. There are many wowing moments in store (which I’m not going to spoil for you) and the new transitions contribute not only to a more seamless show, but also a faster pace. If we add the new orchestrations (with more detailed arrangements and a richer variety of sounds) and the little tweaks done in some songs (only to improve the dramatism of original score), there’s no confusion when concluding that the new creative team loves this musical as much as its most faithful fans do.
As for the cast, nobody will be caught off guard when I say that Jon Robyns is definitely a brighter star than those Javert sings about. Extremely good acting meets a robust and intoxicating voice, resulting in one solid (and without any traces of exaggeration, fantastic) performance. Along with him, the marriage (only in fiction) of Gerard Carey and Josefina Gabrielle as M. and Mme. Thérnardier means another extraordinary contribution to the company – as their remarkable chemistry and instictive stage presence ensures they stand out not only thanks to their goofy characters, but their attention-grasping comicality.
But somes shadows have been cast on the valley of the poor too, as during my attendance, Chanice Alexander-Burnett (playing the tragic heroine Fantine) was slightly out of pitch throughout all of her character’s ultimate anthem (I Dreamed The Dream) – her performance being a little overacted too. On the other hand, Sha Dessi, in the role of the fearless Éponine, seems to fail in the opposite direction, with her interpretation too restrained and lacking the emotional turmoil this part needs to emanate. Fortunately enough, there are also some marvelous discoveries, these especially coming from Will Richardson as the ferocious and inspiring Enjolras, showing off an exquisite vocal technique and imposing charisma, suggesting this may be the beginning of a longer term for him in the legendary London production.
There is nothing like a dream to create future. Hugo may have condemned the idea of his wretched ones to be adapted into a musical (as he clearly stated in his will). But unbeknownst to him by the time he wrote that quote, he had forseen what was coming to his dearest creation. Love it or hate it, it’s undisputable that Les Misérables changed the course of this genre forever and lightened a path for new works to come. A path whose torch it’s still holding. A path whose front it’s still leading. For every dawn that breaks in London’s West End, it continues to feed from the light of Les Miz‘s last night.
Les Misérables plays at London’s Sondheim Theatre from Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are available on the following link.