Part I: The Show
Before I start on the program I saw this week at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage in Vancouver, I should give non-Vancouverites my opinion of Les Mis, by Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schonberg, and Herbert Kretzmer. It is only fair, after all, to let you know that I consider it by far the best example of Musical Theatre/Opera I know. I have seen the London production, the movie, and various stagings for television, and been enthralled every time at the skill of the writing and the power of the performances.
The first strength has to be the music. Most musicals are happy if they have a few songs that really catch the audience ear. Some very popular shows have only one. In Les Mis, they are uncountable. “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who am I?” “Come to Me,” “Stars,” “In My Life,” “A Heart Full of Love.” And that’s only the first act. No, actually that’s the whole show, because these writers have used a very clever trick. Every notable tune is brought back at least once in the latter part of the show, but the kicker is that it sung with different words, sometimes even by a different character. And, to make the irony complete, the two renditions often have different themes. So the Bishop’s song in the first act where he saves Valjean for God, becomes “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” where Marius mourns the loss of his friends in the revolution, and “Bring Him Home,” where Valjean asks God to save Marius, echoes “On My Own,” where Eponine sings of her unrequited love for Marius. And in two of the most powerful performances of the show, Jean Valjean’s soliloquy where he vows to be a better man in the beginning becomes Javert’s soliloquy where he commits suicide at the end.
I’m not so happy with the lyrics, but they are a translation. There are a few repeated words and weak expressions, and some places where I sincerely doubt that’s what the original meant to say, but hey, the stuff’s got to scan and rhyme, right? In general they get the job done, and most of the writing is very powerful.
The second reason that this show is so strong is the thematic content. Taken as it was from the wonderful book by Victor Hugo, it deals with concepts of good and evil on both the personal and social scale. Protagonist and antagonist battle out their conflict on the nature of man against a background of social upheaval and revolution. Believe me, this isn’t “No, No Nannette!”
The third asset has to be the performances. The quality of the writing has attracted many wonderful performers, and if you ever find the London 25th Anniversary Concert on television, I urge you not to miss it, as you will see the stars of many productions on the same stage together.
The fourth wonder of these performances has to be the set. The barricade scene stands out in everyone’s memory because of its size and powerful effect.
Part II The Arts Club Performance
So the bar has been set very high for any group that dares to perform such a wonder. How did the Arts Club manage? I would have to say they did Vancouver proud.
The first thing that impressed me was the quality of the singing voices. I have always said that seeing a London performance of any show means you see performers in minor roles who could have been leads anywhere else. This does not hold true of this performance. The leads here could hold their heads up in any theatre in the world, and many of the supporting actors were right up there as well. Notable was Warren Kimmel as Javert, perhaps the biggest shoes to fill, and he stood up admirably. Kieran Martin Murphy was a powerful Valjean, although I suspect the role is not written in his most comfortable vocal range, requiring a few octave jumps which detracted from the strength of the song. Credit to Musical Director Bruce Kellet for the power and balance of the musical performances. And to the sound technicians. I could hear every word of the songs!
The major problem the Arts Club had to solve was putting such a huge production on such a small stage. They solved it by clever use of a unit set, which consisted of a series of stone arches, admirably suited for external and internal scenes, and even the sewer. This was supported by spot-on flying sets, and a barricade mounted on a huge wagon, which rolled towards the audience with a majesty that made us fear it was never going to stop.
The restricted setting required a few changes in the script, which would be unnoticeable to those who did not know the book well. The only loss was that there was no tavern scene, so no “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables,” which was a pity, as they play such a large part in that song.
Once again, a small stage and a small cast for such a huge show is a great challenge for a choreographer, and I felt that Valery Easton’s simple and dignified solutions hit exactly the right note.
Another challenge for the small stage is the proximity to the audience. Thus costumes and makeup had to be much more realistic and detailed than for larger venues. Once again, the solutions were perfect. I’d have to say that in this sort of show, the best costumes are those that blend in perfectly. This isn’t “Showboat,” where you want the audience distracted by the “isn’t that wonderful!” reaction.
Lighting and Special Effects
While the larger productions focus on grandeur, this production aimed at subtlety and atmosphere, which matched perfectly. Plenty of fog and darkness suited the mood of the show, and allowed our imaginations to fill in what the sets could not.
In conclusion, I’d say Vancouver and the Arts Club can be proud of mounting such a wonderful production of a worldwide hit. The run is extended until August 23. Get out there and see it!
Five Stars and a Standing O
And Just for Fun
A personal complaint, which can be laid at the feet (or pen) of Victor Hugo; don’t expect realism, here. I mean, imagine you’re a teacher, and the principal takes you aside and says, “You’ve got two girls coming to your class. One is the pampered brat of a couple of known criminals. The other is an orphan whose father was a wastrel and whose mother wasn’t known for making good lifestyle choices. This kid’s living with an ex-con who isn’t her father, and who has no obvious source of income. They’re all a bunch of sweethearts, really they are!” And these are the good guys in the story.
Give me the Thénardiers any day. They remain true to form from beginning to end.