Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Not So Miserables

I'm not a big fan of musicals. I don't have a default of dislike towards them, I just find that they need to be pretty special for me to like them.

I really liked the film Chicago. I had fun being in Guys and Dolls in high-school. I look forward to someday seeing each of Avenue Q and Wicked. But more often than not I just find the convention of spontaneously breaking into song to reveal ones inner thoughts or to declare one's romantic love just a little bit weird.

All that said, I frikken LOVE Les Miserables. It is hands down my favourite musical of all time. It is epic and tragic and uplifting all at the same time.

I've even been in a condensed (deliberately humourous) rap-version of it – but that is a story in its' own right.

I've seen it five times. The first four were various versions of the Canadian touring cast. The fifth was a preview of the local production opening at the Arts Club here in Vancouver in two days time.

I hoped as I waited for the show to begin that it would diverge from the staging format of the original production. Some shows are constrained by proprietary rights on the design – the essential argument being that the design is inherent to the show. Little Shop of Horrors is one of these shows. (In Little Shop's case mounting the production without using the attached designs for the man-eating plant costs extra.) I was more interested in seeing something new from the show than to see a re-mounting of practically the same show with a smaller budget.

It was apparent immediately that I was going to get something new. Before the first word was sung it was clear that the signature revolve that dominated the stage in the classic production was nowhere to be seen.

The show itself was uneven. It reached peaks of emotion similar to the more accustomed versions, but it came up short at least as many times.

To be fair, I am rather certain that the show I saw was the first time the production had been in front of a paying and objective audience.

My guess is that the cast hadn't yet come to realize that a show this big has no place for humility. It's big and can support a huge performance. Which is not to say that it wasn't effective, but it can be so much more. And once it is trusted to hold up its end of the melodrama it can bear the weight of their raw emotion.

At time's they hit it. Kieran Martin Murphy only half embodies the rich soul of Jean Valjean until the second act when he delivers one of the most awe inspiring renditions of "Bring Him Home" ever. Rejean Cournoyer also reaches for the upper limits of his role with Javert's final song. Jeffrey Victor as Marius is out-charisma-ed by Jonathan Winsby's Enjolras until after the latter's final exit and he has no chance to answer to Victor's wonderfully wrought "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables." Spirit of the West front-man John Mann even fails to come out the gate strong, though gets there later. The Thenardier's as roles are saddled with the task of having their best song – by a country mile – be their first song, leaving them little place to go. Previous portrayals have answered this issue by making such a big meal of the first that the latter ones are inevitably forgotten. Mann and Nicola Lipman (in possibly the most jarring yet ultimately successful casting of the show) finish stronger than they began. Almost as if they're wilfully trying to not retread the well-worn territory of previous "Master of the House" renditions by under-playing it.

As the show went on the performances grew stronger. I continue to chalk it up to being a show that is still finding it's legs – the cast getting more confident as it goes along.

I never felt Rebecca Talbot lived in the costume shoes of Eponine – the role I once rapped (and was no more effective, just silly really) and indeed I was hardly moved by "A Little Fall of Rain" a song that always chokes me up. I was amused to see her surprised reaction to the audience's overwhelmingly positive response – a deserved (despite my quibbles) standing ovation. She didn't seem to be alone... more fuel to my theory that the cast was trying on the size of the show in front of an audience for the first time.

For the most part the child actors are solid. Joshua Ballard as Gavroche is engaging as Gavoroche, Rachael Withers as Young Eponine finds no emotional reality and merely demonstrates her judgment of her character... and thankfully is off stage in little more than one scene, Emily Machette falls between the two as Young Cosette - luckily landing far closer to the former than the latter.

Doing Les Miserables at this particular juncture puts two numbers in particular under inevitable scrutiny. The previously mentioned "Bring Him Home" – Kieran Martin Murphy out sings Jaimie Pugh in a walk. Pugh is tender and beautiful, but Murphy adds drama with fantastic dynamics. Sarah Jean Hosie doesn't fare as well against her virtual competition Susan Boyle. I suspect she may have even been psyching herself out. She knows, like everyone else does, that Boyle's "I Dreamed a Dream" instantly became one of the most viewed pieces of music on YouTube ever. The pressure to match that performance is unavoidable, and counter productive. Hosie bucks the trend of the show and tries too hard.

Excepting a few surprisingly cheap bits of lazy stagecraft the staging itself is more successful and intriguing than clunky... though on occasion it is the latter. I am surprised that Director Bill Millerd, AD of one of the largest theatre companies in the country slips into the a few hackneyed moments of staging that threaten to de-rail the show. It's as if the show runs on five gears but Millerd only has four.

I'd be curious to see the show a sixth time later in the run to see how it has matured. I expect many of my criticisms will be answered as the actors are inspired by the strength of the material to reach the heights that the show's structure can support building up to.

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