Cramming as much fun into a weekend in New York as possible, our next theatre trip was to see the brand new revised Les Miserables at the Imperial Theatre. I love discovering new theatres, and I really like the fact that the Imperial hasn’t been renamed! It was built in 1923 and has played host to a raft of top quality, significant American musicals over the decades. Oh Kay, The Desert Song, Song of Norway, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, all started their lives here. In relatively recent years it’s become more international with Chess, Billy Elliot and of course two engagements of Les Miserables. Any resident ghost here is going to have a songbook repertoire as long as your shroud.
In the grand summer of 1986, together with the then Miss Duncansby, we overdosed on West End shows to our heart’s content, booking up all the big attractions of the time in one fell swoop and devouring them between May and October that year. One of those was Les Miserables, at the Palace Theatre; my ever resourceful archive of programmes tells me we saw it on 10th July 1986 occupying Seats A 29 & 30 in the Dress Circle. Jean Valjean was played by Colm Wilkinson (Ireland’s 1978 Eurovision singer), Javert was Roger Allam, Thénardier was Alun Armstrong, and the minor cast was littered with great names-to-be of the West End like Dave Willetts, Peter Polycarpou, Frances Ruffelle (another Eurovision connection) and Jackie Marks.
Those seats; has anyone sat in the front row of the Dress Circle in the Palace? Not good. You feel they ought to be great, but the leg room is infinitesimally tiny. Les Mis is a long show, and, with nowhere to put your knees, it feels much, much longer. At the time I used to suffer from gout occasionally – that was one such occasion. I was in such pain that I couldn’t hobble to the underground station and had to get a taxi from outside the theatre. So it’s fair to say my mind was on other things. As for Mrs Chrisparkle (Miss D) – well she will probably be the first to admit that she was perhaps just a little too young and spirited to appreciate the finer nuances of French revolutionary despair. We liked many of the songs – what’s not to like? But neither of us had any desire to see it again.
Many years later (2012) the film came out and re-sparked our interest, and I must say we really enjoyed it. So we have often thought about reappraising our rather jaded memories of Les Mis, and this new, re-orchestrated, re-designed version in New York, seemed like the perfect opportunity. It’s been described as “Les Mis for the American Idol generation”, which very nearly put me off completely. I had horrible visions of “I Dreamed a Dream” being interrupted by whoops and cheers every time there was a pause in the vocals. But I needn’t have worried. Les Miserables is a show so full of heart and integrity, sadness and valour, that the audience is stunned into reflective, appreciative silence during the performance, only to let rip with enthusiastic applause at the end of each number. And that is how it should be!
It’s a complicated plot, that unravels over decades, and summarising it would be a feat of fine temporal engineering. Suffice to say it’s the story of Jean Valjean, sentenced to 19 years in prison – for stealing bread, and then for trying to escape – but finally released on parole and, 8 years later, reinvented as M. Madeleine, wealthy factory owner and local mayor. Episodically he encounters the sad and abused factory worker Fantine, her daughter Cosette, duplicitous innkeepers the Thénardiers, and their daughter Eponine, revolutionaries Marius (in love with Cosette) and Enjolras, and little street urchin Gavroche. The thread linking Valjean’s lifelong story is his running enmity with Javert, the police officer who blindly pursues him seeking justice for Valjean’s escape. If you need a fuller account I suggest you check Wikipedia.
Well, what can I say? The show is absolutely stunning. You’re gripped from the first scene and it doesn’t let up until the instant standing ovation at the end. Mrs C and I took bets as to when we would finally need to fumble for the tissues – and we plumped for Bring Him Home for both of us. Fat chance! I was blubbering at the death of Fantine. That means I didn’t even get past Side One of the double album. Pathetic. There are some incredibly vivid scenes; Valjean carrying Marius through the sewers and encountering Thénardier was electric with movement, atmosphere and eeriness; and the back projection effect for the death of Javert was simply extraordinary. No simple hurling himself off the bridge onto an unseen mattress, this took suicide into another dimension. It’s a complete “hats-off” to the set and image designer, Matt Kinley. Paule Constable’s lighting also played a major part in the visual brilliance of the show – in the barricade scenes, I loved how flashing images between the gaps gave the impression of bombardment and attack; and the brief tableau for the death of Gavroche was agonisingly moving and impactful. The music is as strong as ever, and James Lowe’s orchestra demands your attention just as much as the injustice-filled plot and the extraordinary performances.
For yes, many of the performances are absolutely extraordinary. Surely for any musical theatre actor, the role of Jean Valjean must be the most desired of all. Is there a more heroic character anywhere in musical theatre? Starring as JVJ is Ramin Karimloo, personally chosen by Andrew Lloyd-Webber to play the Phantom in Love Never Dies, but also a much-loved performer as the Phantom and Raoul in the original Phantom of the Opera, as well as having played Enjolras and Marius in previous productions of Les Mis. I’d not seen Mr Karimloo before but what a superb performer he is. His voice is magnificently expressive and he has amazing control and elegance to his singing. He really projects the dignity and natural authority of Valjean; and I was right, I didn’t survive his performance of Bring Him Home, I was stifling sobs from the word go.
The other performance that really surprised me with its emotional power was that of Erika Henningsen as Fantine, in her Broadway debut. When I think of the show in general, I think of Fantine as something of an also-ran; “I Dreamed a Dream” is a very nice song, but its impact has lessened over the years owing to its having been covered so many times by so many people. Think again. Miss Henningsen’s voice cuts through the Paris fog with immaculate clarity and beauty, and her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” reinstated it for me as a classic. She performed Fantine’s death scene with such sweet sadness that it shocked me; and when she returns at the end to help guide the dying Valjean to the other side it was almost unbearably moving. If you heard that voice beckoning you to heaven, you’d go like a shot.
For our performance, the role of Javert was played by the understudy, Andrew Love. What a find! As strong and as determined a Javert as you could hope to see, with a fantastic voice that expresses all of the character’s bitterness and obsession. His performance of “Stars” was sensational and he had an uproarious reception at curtain call – definitely One To Watch. We also had a superb Enjolras in the shape of Wallace Smith, who really looked the part and had all the charisma needed to encourage us to man the barricades. His “Red/Black” sequence sent a shiver down your spine. Brennyn Lark cuts a truly tragic figure as Eponine, with a warm and sensuous voice that gets to the heart of the character in a way that I don’t think I’ve heard before. On My Own is a stunning song, and she gave it immense depth.
The much needed comedy (tinged, of course, with depravity and cruelty) comes from the Thénardiers, performed with terrific verve by Gavin Lee and Rachel Izen. Mr Lee is a musical actor of great skill – we saw him in Mary Poppins a number of years ago and he absolutely lit up the stage in that show, tippetty-tapping all the way around the proscenium arch. His Thénardier is a light-footed, angular, mischievous villain, schmoozing his way around the bar, always on the lookout for a little jewellery to thieve; exchanging knowing glances with the audience, and constantly crossing the boundaries of decency. It’s a very athletic performance, full of physical comedy, but with no sacrifice of the splendour of his singing voice; toe-curlingly brilliant. He is matched by Miss Izen (whom I first saw decades ago in the original London cast of A Chorus Line) as his wretched partner-in-crime, a hideously overblown fashion victim, making the most of the coarse humour of the part, but still with a great voice and wonderful stage presence.
Samantha Hill invests Cosette with child-like glee and enthusiasm for her new-found love, a sweet singing voice and genuine devotion to Valjean. I’m not sure if Chris McCarrell as Marius had a slight sore throat as I felt his rendition of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables was so reflective and so introverted, that it maybe lacked the emotional edge of some of the other performances. And a big shout out to 7-year-old (and that is young!) Athan Sporek, our Gavroche, a cheeky little imp unafraid to swagger where angels fear to tread; his gesture to the captured Javert brought the house down.
This production is so overwhelmingly moving that, not only did we continue blubbing on the way out, we started again on the street, and, an hour or two later back in the hotel room, at the mention of the final scene, we started off all over again. It’s the combination of the purity and clarity of the voices with the obviously sad story and the emotionally charged melodies that creates a magic package that plays havoc with your tear ducts. Unbelievably good; staggeringly effective. A magnificent production.
P.P.S. They really do things differently in America don’t they? Unusually, there was a long queue for the Gents toilet (I mean the male restroom) during the interval. Along a corridor, up some stairs round a corner and into another room. One usher was barking out instructions which queue to join for which toilet, depending on whether you were male or female. As he was doing so, he noticed someone trying to get on to the side of the stage in order to take a photograph. Of course, no question, this is bad theatre etiquette, and I understand someone had to ask him to stop, but did we really need this usher to yell out: “SIR!! GET DOWN SIR!!” louder than any of the cast? I was expecting the poor theatregoer to have been shackled in Guantanamo Bay before the curtain call. When I finally neared the end of the queue for the toilets, I discovered another usher was beckoning people a few at a time to turn the corner into the Gents itself. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, QUICKLY!!!” he shouted, as he looked at me. I was shocked at being treated like an errant schoolchild. I’ll walk into the Gents at my own pace, thank you very much. Some people need to go on a remedial respect course. Manners maketh theatre staff.