Step Aside, Hugh Jackman. Review of Les Misérables | By Annie Pumphrey

When one speaks the words “Les Misérables” nowadays, it is hard not to have images of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway flashing through your head. While the film version of this classic musical definitely has its attractions—multiple Academy Awards, a $61 million budget, and accessibility (you can watch it in your pajamas!)—nothing beats seeing Victor Hugo’s story told like it’s meant to be told… on stage.

Originally written by French author Victor Hugo, it wasn’t until 1980 that Les Misérables found its way in to the wonderfully competitive world of musical theatre, when it was first performed as a concert in a French sports arena. After many years of trials and tribulations, the musical is now the second-longest running production on London’s West End, the fourth-longest running on Broadway, and has made its way once again to our very own Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton.

Set in the poverty-stricken streets of a revolutionary period in 19th-Century France, Les Misérables follows the journey of Jean Valjean as he struggles to redeem himself after falling into a life of mishap. The haggard, sepia-toned ambience of the show begins as soon as the curtains open. A work-worn, dirt-smeared Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer) monotonously heaves in exhaustion alongside a throng of similarly hard-to-luck French prisoners. Their perfectly harmonized, booming voices reverberate across the two thousand five hundred seats of the Jubilee theatre. “Look down, look down, you’re here until you die” they chant—a warning to the audience of the emotionally-wrenching story that they are about to witness.

Director Cameron Mackintosh’s minimal approach to lighting and set design greatly added to the show’s themes of haplessness and struggle. During each of the musical’s solo numbers, such as Fantine’s (Genevieve Leclerc)“I Dreamed a Dream”, Javert’s (Andrew Varela) “Stars”, and Éponine’s “On My Own”, the entire stage was cleared of all set, leaving only the actor and a single stage light. This simplicity of technical design forced all attention onto the character, invoking a strong connection with the audience and providing a greater emphasis to the musical’s music and lyrics.

In the second act, Valjean slumps through the sewers of France with the young French-revolution leader Marius (Devin Ilaw) slung over his shoulders. An eerie projection of a tunnel moves slowly in the background with each step he takes, giving the illusion of a three dimensional backdrop. At times it can be challenging for directors to find a happy medium between the use of video and live theatre, as the over-use of projections can often pull audience members away from the intimacy of a show. However, the careful use of projections in the production was used in a way that greatly enhanced the overall performance.

Bursting with charisma and talent, the alluring Briana Carlson-Goodman shone onstage in her portrayal of the love-struck Éponine. Her crystal clear voice and youthful energy brought a pleasant contrast to the forlorn, desolate tone of the play. A similarly notable performance was by Andrew Varela in his role of Inspector Javert. With his unwaveringly strict militant posture and impressively strong vocals, Varela was an undoubting highlight as he convincingly depicted Javert’s slow deterioration.

With minimalist design elements and superb talent, Broadway Across Canada’s rendition of Les Misérables is a definite success. If you’ve seen the film, don’t think that you’ve seen it all.

Les Misérables runs until July 14 at The Northern Jubilee Auditorium. Tickets range from $69.80 to $130.15, and can be purchased online at ticketmaster.com.

CC photograph on Flickr courtesy of ensign_beedrill

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