During the 2013 Tony Awards, when referring to the newly released movie version of Broadway’s Les Miserables, host Neil Patrick Harris stated the following: “See, we don’t need extreme close-ups to prove we’re singing live. We sing it eight shows a week. Check it!” It was a humorously sniffy yet accurate remark.
It’s one thing to attempt a sense of realism, as the film set out to do, but by doing so it lost much of that inspiring, robust quality you get from a genuine live performance. If you have yet to see a live presentation of the long-running, hit musical, and you’ve been holding out for the right time, then stand in line – as performed at the new Phoenix Theatre, this is the one to see.
Back in 2009, Phoenix Theatre painted itself into a corner. It presented an unexpectedly stunning version of the show that took everyone by surprise. By the conclusion of its run, going forward, every show that followed was held to the same standards of presentation, and that was a lot to live up to. Five years later, Les Miz returns. Those who remember the 2009 production are going to be surprised. It may have the same director as before, Robert Hupp, and it may have the same Jean Valjean, Douglas Webster, but there the similarities end; rather than presenting a re-hash of the first, which, on reflection, would have been perfectly fine, director Hupp has delivered something quite different – he’s challenged himself and presented a totally re-imagined version of the show. It may well be as full-bodied and as vibrant a production as you’ve presumably experienced in previous years, but here it is sung with the kind of hearty and forceful clarity that occasionally overwhelms; if you’ve seen the show before, watching Hupp’s new production at the Phoenix is like seeing it for the first time.
The difference is noticeable from the beginning. During the Work Song where prisoners are working hard labor in Toulon, France in 1815, the men pull on two giant ropes. It’s a nod to the film where Jean Valjean, prior to his parole, is seen pulling a large vessel from the sea ready for dry dock. On stage we can’t see what the giant ropes are attached to, but it doesn’t matter; the effect of working a cruel and punishing labor is efficiently made. In other words, it works.
From there, even though the songs and music are familiar, the look is not. Phoenix triumphs with a new staging and scenic design from Mike Nichols that creates an eye-catching backdrop incorporating different levels and platforms, allowing characters to look down on the action before them from varying heights.
But despite the look of the show and the new ways director Hupp has come up with in order to tell his story, it’s the voices you’re going to remember. Les Miserables is usually touted as a musical or a sung-through musical due to the absence of dialog, but in any other world outside of NYC’s Broadway or London’s West End, this is really an opera sung in English, and it’s here at this Phoenix Theatre production where the show’s operatic roots are in full evidence. When Cosette (Karenessa LeGear) and Marius (Christophe Behmke) duet, their voices soar, as does Jenny Hintze as Eponine and Elizabeth Brownlee as Fantine. In fact, there are so many examples to be given, that to be fair you would have to mention everyone in the cast individually; there’s not a weak voice among them. James Zannelli’s Javert is quite magnificent (and finally erases the memory of Russell Crowe’s less than adequate vocal chops in the film), plus Douglas Webster’s Jean Valjean is so effectively inspiring there are times when you actually hear the echo of the show’s original voice, Colm Wilkinson.
Two things. The one moment of comic relief is Master of the House, the vulgar and extremely funny sing-a-long show-stopper that comes at just the right moment. Because of the song’s nature, and the fact that after almost forty minutes of watching and hearing characters sing their way through some of the most wretched and desperate situations life has hurled at them, a song like this is a welcomed moment of release, but because of this, there’s often a tendency to over do the comedy. The song is clever and funny enough on its own terms – and here sung to near perfection – but having the abhorrent Thenardier’s overplay the physical with what looks like drunkenness coupled with twitches and tics is pushing the comedy with more force than required. They may be grotesque in a comically Dickensian manner – they’re appearance is just right – but they’re not cartoons. By having them act throughout the song with such over-the-top affectations is to diminish the natural humor of the song.
Also, when Javert leaps from the bridge into the Seine, by darkening the moment too quickly and raising the bridge behind him with such speed, the dramatic impact of the moment is lost. Audiences who have previously seen other productions will no doubt know what has just happened, but those seeing it for the first time may be confused.
But whatever reservations that may occasionally surface are lost when compared to the voices in this incredibly satisfying production. As Neil Patrick Harris remarked, the film may have had the performers singing live, but believe me, a wrong note and there was always a re-take. A live show has no such luxury. For these performers, singing is a one-shot deal, and in this Phoenix Theatre production, these voices, backed by Alan Ruch’s outstanding musical direction, are among the finest you will ever hope to hear.
For more information regarding times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the Phoenix Theatre website.