The TheatreguideLondon Review
NOVEMBER 2001: We didn't post a review of this long-running musical earlier, partly because we assumed everyone in the world had already seen it, but mainly because we ourselves hadn't seen it since its opening 16 years ago and didn't remember much except that we hadn't particularly liked it. So the opportunity to revisit it was a pleasant and surprising experience.
The show is good. Either it has gotten better in 16 years or our taste has improved. (Actually, it may be a bit of both. Producer Cameron Mackintosh famously closed the show down for a month in 1997 to reconceive and revitalise it, and there's no doubt that the standards of each new cast are kept high.) Of the whole genre of semi-operatic costume musicals that it helped spawn - think Martin Guerre, La Cava, Notre Dame, Napoleon, etc - this is by far one of the best, and well worthy of its long run.
For the uninitiated, the French musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, adapted by directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, is based on Victor Hugo's sprawling novel about an ex-convict who reforms and becomes something of a saint. He befriends a dying prostitute and promises to raise her daughter, rescues the girl from her abusive foster family, gets involved in one of Paris's regularly-scheduled revolutions, saves the life of his adopted daughter's lover and dies a blessed man, in spite of being hounded through most of his life by a vindictive policeman.
The next time you're at a West End musical, play this little game. Check the program's cast biographies and I'm willing to bet that at least half of them will at some time have been in some production somewhere of Les Miserables. That's true even of this cast, several of whom bring the experience of other roles or other productions to this one. If Hans-Peter Janssens doesn't quite have the physical and moral authority I would hope for in Jean Valjean, he does sing beautifully, and his rendition of "Bring Him Home" is the most moving I've heard. As Marius, Jody Crosier is stuck with a part that is almost faceless pretty-boy, but a powerful rendition of his survivor-guilt song "Empty Chairs" gives the underwritten character a lot of depth.
The women are given less opportunity to register - it's a pretty good rule of thumb in this show that any attractive young character who has a solo is going to die soon - and neither Grania Renihan's Fantine nor Philippa Healey's Cosette makes much of an impression. Katie Leeming as Eponine is another matter: this understudy, who I hope will get a full-time chance at the role soon, gives a real star-making performance of high energy and personality. Finally, neither Michael McCarthy's Javert nor Tony Timberlake's Thenardier is quite dark and dangerous enough for their villain roles.
The show is not perfect. The condensed version of the very long novel means some plot awkwardnesses. Valjean goes from ex-con to prosperous businessman and mayor between scenes, the student revolutionaries come out of nowhere, the Thenardiers wander in and out of the action unrealistically, and characters like Fantine or Gavroche are introduced just to be killed off.
One of the complaints I had 16 years ago was that the sung-through score seemed perversely determined to resist any pull toward melody, and the return visit confirms this to some extent. Although, as I have noted, some of the big set pieces do register powerfully, many of the numbers, like Javert's two solos or the trio "A Heart Full of Love," are extended recitatifs that just don't have a hummable tune. And too many of those songs that do have good melodies, like "Do You Hear The People Sing?" break off just as they're getting exciting. (It is in part because she gets one of the best songs - simply as a song - in the show - "On My Own" - that the actress playing Eponine makes so strong an impression.)
At any rate, I hereby humbly withdraw 16 years of misguided disdain for those who enjoyed Les Miserables. It really is a good show.
(Be aware that long-running shows may have had cast changes since our review was written.)
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Review - Les Miserables - Palace / Queen's