If you already have your tickets for Showbiz Christchurch’s production of Les Misérables, then you are fortunate. If not, what are you thinking? Hurry while they are available. Les Mis, as it’s affectionately called, has run continuously in London since 1985 and toured globally. It is more than a musical, it’s a cultural phenomenon. Which it almost has no right to be.
Victor Hugo’s 1463 page epic (first published in 1862), spanning almost twenty years, depicts the struggles of the French poor against a brutal justice system, grinding poverty and prejudice. Hardly uplifting stuff. Add to that the doomed rebellion and the relentless hounding of noble pauper Jean Valjean by officer Javert and, on paper, it makes one wonder how the musical ever got off the ground.
But it works. It gets under your skin. The music is heart-stirring, the story grand and sweeping. There are characters to love, to hate, to pity and to laugh at. It has love, pain, despair, redemption, the whole roller coaster of human emotion condensed into two and a half hours. The musical is long, I admit, but the pace is unremitting, aided by a revolving stage that keeps the action ever flowing.
This is the story of Jean Valjean, a man released after 19 years hard labour for stealing bread, who reconstructs himself as a respectable town mayor and factory owner before inadvertently causing the downfall of the wretched Fantine. As atonement, he raises Fantine’s daughter Cosette as his own. Cosette falls in love with a young Revolutionary, whom Valjean protects for Cosette’s sake. Throughout it all Valjean is hunted by the morally inflexible policeman Javert.
Valjean carries the weight of the story on his shoulders and you need an incredible talent to carry the musical. Showbiz Christchurch has found that in Daniel Belle, a remarkably talented singer and performer. Belle brings a steady inner strength to his Valjean, a pride in his bearing throughout his journey from embittered convict to compassionate father. Belle’s singing is stunning, particularly in ‘Bring Him Home’, a song that rises to a breathtaking crescendo that has the audience whooping and cheering.
Javert is, by contrast, a man who doesn’t believe in redemption in this life. The law is black and white to Javert: only brutal justice can provoke good behaviour. It can be easy to slip into a wooden portrayal of this unyielding man, but James Foster plays Javert with personality and humanity. He is superb as Javert on the bridge, grappling with the knowledge that his world has utterly unravelled.
Fantine is the woman who is trying to support her daughter, broken down by an uncaring society, until, destitute and ill, she hits back. Saved from arrest by Valjean, she begs him to care for her Cosette. Kira Josephson plays a perfect Fantine. Her powerful, emotive voice holds the audience spellbound. Her eyes betray the unforgiving life she has suffered, her voice trembles with her pain.
Monique Clementson is a heartbreaking Eponine, the woman who hides her true feelings for Marius under a tomboyish mask. Her heartfelt rendition of ‘On My Own’ brings me to tears and the audience to a thunderous applause.
Jacqueline Doherty plays the adult Cosette for the naive sheltered girl she is. She and Fergus Inder’s idealistic and frankly oblivious student Marius make it believable that they could have fallen in love so quickly. Their courtship scene is played with great innocence against the brutality outside the gates, though I stifle a laugh when Marius seems to show superhuman strength by bending the iron bars as he squeezed through. Why not have made the gaps wider?
Ben Freeth and Rebecca Malcolm deserve special recognition for their portrayal of Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, a pair representing the more grotesque, grasping side of human nature. They bring an element of humour to a dark story without dipping too far into caricature.
Young locals Duncan Price and Isla Palmer are tonight’s Gavroche and Little Cosette. Both only nine years old, they have demanding roles yet seem to fill the stage with their presence: Palmer as the wide-eyed, sweet-voiced Cosette and Price as the brave and cheeky urchin Gavroche.
Without the stunning ensemble, Les Misérables is only a shell of a show. These dynamic performers clearly invest all of themselves into their characters, whether students, tavern-goers, prostitutes or prisoners. They fill the stage, each a unique presence, faces animated with emotion: a delight to watch. Their exceptional voices soar and are superbly complemented by the excellent live orchestra under the direction of Richard Marrett.
The costumes are impeccable. Diane Brodie QSM has outdone herself with the level of detail and professionalism that has gone into every piece, whether simple nightgown or military uniform. The lighting design is likewise excellent; moody and evocative, particularly in the sewer scene. I do find it too dark at times – some greater variation would take it from excellent to perfect.
As my companion and I walk out of the theatre – after a tumultuous applause and well deserved standing ovation – I hear someone behind me remark “What is it about this story that English-speakers love so much?” I would have to argue that it’s less the 19th Century Paris setting and more the eternal themes of striving against injustice, the idealism of youth, the plight of the poor and the redemptive power of love, combined with some of the most powerful and memorable songs ever written, that you can’t help but keep singing to yourself long after the show is over.