When I heard that theatrical impresario Cameron Mackintosh had ‘revitalised’ the musical blockbuster that is Les Misérables, my immediate thoughts were “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, writes Alan Wooding.
Thankfully his new Broadway production of the West End’s best-loved and longest running musical is not only ‘revitalised’, but it is bound to leave Milton Keynes Theatre audiences talking about it long after the French Tricolour has been packed away and the barricades have been dismantled,
Back in 1985 I purchased a state-of-the-art hi-fi system – it even had a recordable mini disc! – and having been blown away after hearing Irish troubadour Colm Wilkinson sing ‘Bring Him Home’ on Terry Wogan’s nightly television show, I quickly purchase the Les Misérables soundtrack CD and I was immediately hooked.
Within hours I’d booked tickets to see the show at London’s Palace Theatre just days after it had transferred from the Barbican and as expected, Colm Wilkinson was absolutely brilliant as Jean Valjean.
With Roger Allam playing his nemesis Inspector Javert, it was Patti LuPone who took on the role of tragic single mum Fantine while superb character actor Alun Armstrong was the hilarious inn keeper Monsieur Thénardier. Added to that, there was also a very youthful Michael Ball as Marius, one of the students who manned the barricades.
Les Misérables – which was originally dubbed in the Press as ‘The Glums’ – was quite easily the best musical show that I had ever seen and the one which I now judge all others by... and, needless to say, few if any have ever come close!
Sir Cameron first conceived this new production of Les Misérables back in 2009 to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary and it originally toured for 12 months before concluding with 22 performances back at the Barbican.
The current UK and Irish touring version of this acclaimed production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stunning musical arrived in Milton Keynes earlier this week and will play there until Saturday 8 June – and anyone who has already bagged themselves a seat has certainly got the hottest ticket in town and they’re set to enjoy what is truly a multi-layered spectacle.
Based on the epic 19th century Victor Hugo novel, Les Misérables has been seen in 52 countries around the world and translated into 22 languages while the ‘revitalised’ version has been technically re-imagined in a musical that has excited audiences and critics alike.
The famous revolving stage has gone thanks to its clever new design, its wonderful projections and stunning lighting effects, which means Les Misérables looks and sounds totally fresh as it heads towards its 35th anniversary.
The show opens in the year 1832 with Jean Valjean having been gaoled for 19 year for stealing a loaf of bread – five for theft, the rest because he tried to run – after which he jumps parole… and that sets Inspector Javert on a personal vendetta to bring him to justice once more. That’s the basis of the story in which we learn the parable-like story of the Bishop’s candlesticks ahead of Valjean becoming a respected employer and Montreuil-sur-Mer’s town mayor.
Along the way we meet up with Fantine, one of Valjean’s tragic factory workers, her sad daughter Cosette and the inn-keeping Thénardiers. And then there’s Marius, Eponine and student leader Enjolras plus a huge cast of factory workers, whores, bystanders and party-going wedding guests who all help bring Les Mis to life with some of the greatest musical numbers that have ever been performed.
While I loved Tom Hooper’s 2012 film which starred Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Eddie Redmayne and the recent BBC Television Les Misérables drama featuring Dominic West as Jean Valjean and David Oyelowo as Inspector Javert, there’s nothing like a live show and in the hands of experienced Irish tenor Killian Donnelly, Valjean is brought to life once more.
Having originally joined the cast of Les Misérables back in 2008 as a member of the chorus, Donnelly has since starred in various different musicals but he has returned several times in various roles but he make the role of Jean Valjean his very own with a fabulous performance throughout plus the show-stopping vocal, ‘Bring Him Home’ as the students try to get some sleep awaiting the final attack.
And it’s Nic Greenshields whose performance as ‘jobsworth’ Inspector Javert sees him obsessively chase former prisoner 24601 throughout the show until he takes his own life with a moving rendition of ‘Soliloquy’ as he commits suicide by leaping from a Paris bridge into the River Seine.
With a magnificent baritone voice, I also loved Greenshields singing ‘Stars’ as he stares out across the Parisien rooftops while if there are two more ‘fun’ characters in musical theatre than the Thénardiers, then I’ve yet to meet them.
Martin Bell plays loveable rogue Monsieur Thénardier with Sophie-Louise Dann as his equally crazy wife…. think Punch and Judy on speed!
They literally bring the house down with the brilliant ‘Master Of The House’ and they then produce a reprise version just before the finale with the comical ‘Beggars At The Feast’.
With a voice worthy of a cackling crone, Sophie-Louise has the audience in stitches as she delivers a string of hilarious one liners regarding her spouse who is too busy ‘rooking the guests and cooking the books’… sheer brilliance.
Meanwhile Katie Hall’s Fantine is absolutely perfect and her heartfelt ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ left Susan Boyle’s Britain’s Got Talent version a mere distant memory.
Tegan Bannister makes a great Eponine and the classic ‘On My Own’ always brings a tear to my eye as does little orphan Cosette’s tear-jerker, ‘Castle On A Cloud’ when she is lodging at the Montfermeil village inn with those dreadful Thénardiers.
With three youngsters taking turns as Little Cosette, Willow Rawlings was pitch perfect in the role on Friday night while Shanyia Malaika Tsoto was the one playing Young Eponine, her spoilt sibling.
The adult Cosette is played by Bronwen Hanson whose feelings for Marius (superbly played on Friday by understudy Shane O’Riordan) come about after a chance meeting – hence ‘I Saw Him Once’, the wonderful ‘In My Life’ and ‘A Heart Full Of Love’ – which not only features the loved-up pair but latterly Valean and a grown up Eponine.
Three more youngsters also take it in turns to play streetwise Paris urchin Gavroche. Joseph Sheppard was on duty on Friday night and he became the first casualty at the barricades after he had tipped off the students that Inspector Javert had shed his uniform and tried to infiltrate them. Gavroche is a fabulous character straight out of a Dickensian novel and is perfect for any youngster to play, his ‘Little People’ number adding so much to the story.
However, it’s the rousing Student chorus of ‘Red And Black’ with Enjorlas (Will Richardson) who then leads the whole cast in ‘Do You Hear The People Sing’ … it’s pure theatrical magic!
Meanwhile Valjean, Marius and Cosette’s brilliant ‘One Day More’ also features Eponine, Javert, Enjolras and then the Thénardiers – the wonderful show-stopping numbers seeming to just keep coming!
Les Misérables is brought to life once more thanks to the fabulous stage design by Matt Kinley. In fact every scene is like turning the pages of a well-thumbed book and beautifully depicted as Victor Hugo’s paintings seem to come straight from his artists’ easel.
Where they manage to hide the barricade and the massive amount of scenery in the wings is a mystery, but it really is impressive as is the scene where Valjean carries Marius through the Paris sewers after he is injured at the barricade where all his student friends have perish. And it’s a recovered Marius who sings the haunting ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’.
While most of the plaudits go to the on-stage actors, you cannot forget that there are 14 superb musicians in the orchestra pit under the direction of conductor Ben Atkinson, the Les Misérables score having been my absolute personal show favourite since I first heard it more than 34 years ago.
The show runs for two hours 45 minutes (plus a 15 minute interval) and with Schönberg’s wonderful musical score and Boubil lyrics – translated into English and enhanced by South African-born wordsmith Herbert Kretzmer (who incidentally is now 93 years old!) – this version of Les Misérables looks set to go on for another 35 years and is sure to play to packed audiences wherever it is staged.
Les Misérables plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday, 8 June, although for the Best Availability, try Monday to Thursday performances. Call the theatre’s dedicated Les Misérables booking line on 01908 547669 (open Monday to Saturday, 12 – 6pm) or visit: https://www.atgtickets.com/shows/les-miserables/milton-keynes-theatre/. Also check daily for returns and last minute ticket releases.