I may have let slip before that I’m a big fan of Les Misérables. I really enjoyed the film when that came around (Russell Crowe and his odd singing notwithstanding), I’ve had and watched every concert version released, went to the West End to see it, I was even in a version several years ago.
In fact, I was down in London watching the show last year, a few weeks before this ‘Staged Concert’ version was opened, while its usual theatre was renovated, the cast is truly a marvel; returning from the 25th Anniversary were Alfie Boe and Matt Lucas (as Valjean and Thenardier, respectively), original cast member Michael Ball returned to the show, although not as Marius, but as the driven police inspector Javert.
Rounding out the cast is a veritable smorgasbord of top West End talent, many of whom are big parts of the show today, in its newly refurbished home.
This isn’t in my usual reviewing wheelhouse, but it still has its merits in performance and film work to merit a review, and I’ll take whatever new release I can get at this point.
So, for those unfamiliar with the story of the show, here’s a quick rundown: Jean Valjean is a convict in 18th century France, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s son. Upon his parole, he is roundly shunned by society, apart from a local bishop, whose kind acts allow him to go on the run with a new identity. What follows is a tale of love, loss and revolution as Valjean tries to avoid the pursuing law, led by the ruthless Inspector Javert.
The above run-down doesn’t come anywhere near doing justice to the story, a sprawling epic told over decades through the eyes of a very large ensemble, it has been playing to sold-out audiences for nearly 35 years, with many people revisiting the show several times, such is its lasting, and seemingly evergreen appeal.
The last time there was a concert version of Les Mis staged was back in 2010, when a 25th Anniversary production sold out the O2 Arena in London. That was an incredible production, with a tremendous cast, but one with a few flaws.
The arena setting really takes away from the feel of the show, which I believe is helped significantly by the more intimate theatre setting, what looks spectacular on an theatre stage, may seem underwhelming in an arena, and as a result it lost some of its usual charm.
This, as I say, was balanced somewhat by an incredible cast; barring one key part: Marius.
The character of Marius is, in many regards, the romantic lead of the show, who falls in love with Valjean’s daughter (he is the one Valjean is singing about in Bring Him Home) it is, in short, a part that needs an incredible voice and character, and what we got in 2010 was Nick Jonas, who I’m sure is a very pleasant person, but who belongs nowhere near Les Misérables. His voice was weak and his characterisation wooden, he nearly ruined several of the shows more affecting moments.
Given the mistakes of ten years ago then, did this new version improve on them? Yes, it did, it fixed the few problems I had with the 25th Anniversary, and even enhanced some of the things I loved about that production.
Alfie Boe, for instance, suits the part much better now than he did ten years ago. He’s still not a very strong actor, but he has a voice to die for. The song ‘Bring Him Home’ sounds like it was written specifically for him, that’s how much he suits it. It’s a beautiful song regardless of who sings it, but in Boe’s hands (or, more specifically, in his voice) it is turned into a golden masterpiece.
The Marius they cast here (Rob Houchen) is a vast improvement too, someone who looks and acts the part extremely well, he is helped by those who surround him too; Bradley Jaden’s turn as Enjolras is particularly noteworthy, especially given that he had Ramin Karimloo’s legacy in the part last time out to match up to, I’d say he handled it extremely well.
Then, there’s the great Michael Ball. A true legend of the British stage, I think it’s fair to say, the man who originated Marius 35 years ago, steps up into the part of Javert with aplomb. I must admit I had my reservations about his casting here. It felt like a stunt casting to put on the poster, rather than a natural move, but when he swoops onto stage, it all started to make sense, and even in this concert setting, he still manages to be one of the strongest actors on stage, to accompany that legendary voice. His performance of ‘Javert’s Soliloquy’ might just be the best acted version that I’ve seen.
How about the staging then? Well, I feel I am vindicated in my belief about the theatre setting enhancing the experience from having watched this. The intimacy of the story is enhanced, and the big, epic moments of the story feel even bigger in the smaller setting, I especially liked the way projections were used in the background, to give us a larger feeling of the world than the concert setting would allow.
I don’t, however, feel that it fixed all the issues and is therefore the better experience, as it added some new grievances that past productions haven’t had.
I think there was too much effort to squeeze comedy out of Matt Lucas, don’t get me wrong, he’s brilliant in the part, and he’s still great here, a few added asides were welcome, but it begins to feel like it’s outstaying its welcome after a while, not helped by the actress playing Mme. Thenardier trying to keep up with Matt’s antics, it starts to test the patience after a while. Which is a shame, because as I say, Matt is great in the part, I just think they tried going to the comedic well too much, part of the characters charm is that he is perhaps the lone sliver of comic relief in an otherwise fairly grim show, but that effect starts to wear thin if it’s leaned on too much.
I also feel like some of the camera direction was self-indulgent, cutting to show the audience giving standing ovations to every other song really cheapens the effect of the final applause, and the way the concert was shot often leaned into this far too much for my liking, going so far as to include shots from behind the chorus, to exclusively show the audience. It didn’t serve the show or narrative in any way and felt too self-congratulatory for my liking.
After saying that, it’s still a more than worthy production of a show I love. Bringing back some old favourites into parts they’ve mastered before, or casting them a new way entirely, it achieves the ‘epic’ feeling of Les Miz more effectively in the smaller setting thanks to its clever use of space, and an incredible cast and chorus.
It may not be the best concert version of the show (that is still the 10th Anniversary ‘Dream Cast’ show) but it still achieves the same emotions as any other and provides us with another version of the beloved show to enjoy. Add in some great performances, and the usual out-of-this world score, and you’re on to a winner. Another great success, if not as revolutionary as previous productions.