Review: Les Misérables at Queen Elizabeth Theatre

At some point in Les Misérables' 28 year history, the tagline 'The Musical Phenomenon' became attached to it. If any Broadway production deserves the description, this is certainly it.

The work has spawned multiple world tours, been translated into a variety of languages, sold millions of albums, and, of course, been adapted into a highly successful film. My theatre-going companion even knew all the words, despite never having seen the show or film; a situation that is probably not uncommon for Les Mis, but almost inconceivable for most other shows.

The Company of Les Misérables (Jason Forbach as Enjolras) Photo: Kyle Froman

The piece has become so culturally ubiquitous that it is easy to forget just how unlikely it is that the work achieved such heights: it is adapted from a dense and massive French epic, its protagonist's story is absent of romance, and its prevailing sentiments are rather grim (it is called 'The Miserables,' after all). None of this would seem to bode well for a musical arriving in 1985 (Broadway's top grossers that year were Cats, La Cage Aux Folles, and 42nd Street), yet there is something in its song and story that would prove to be so universally accessible that it continues to draw packed houses to theatres nearly three decades later.

Much of what makes the show so special was on display at last night's opening, and perhaps most of all in Peter Lockyer's portrayal of protagonist Jean Valjean. Lockyer is a musical theatre veteran, whose impressive list of past Broadway roles include Chris in Miss Saigon, Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's La Boheme, and even Marius in the 10th Anniversary production of Les Mis. Valjean's demanding songs simply soar on Lockyer's powerful voice and the performer manages to access both the humanity and hardness of the complex role.

Genevieve Leclerc as Fantine. Photo Kyle Froman

A Canadian stand-out came in the form of Geneviève Leclerc's Fantine. With clear-as-a-bell tones, the Gatineau native brought steely resolve and inner strength to a role that can often come off as simply pitiable.

Timothy Gulan gave an unconventional interpretation of the innkeeper Thénardier that was more sly, charming fox than bacchanalian imp. Having come to possess certain expectations from the role (particularly for his bawdy, introductory song 'Master of the House') the change was jarring at first, but came to make sense later as the charismatic leader of a street gang.

This production is brand new to Vancouver audiences, having been adapted from the 25th Anniversary staging. The familiar rotating disk from past productions, which occupied most of the stage and facilitated epic travelling scenes, is gone. The scope and size of the story is instead conveyed through massive, beautifully designed set pieces, including a pair of incredibly flexible building exteriors that occupy the full height of the stage, can rotate a full 360 degree for a range of configurations, and yet still are able to completely retract into the offstage wings.

The largest technological upgrade comes in the form of a screen that constitues the entire upstage wall. Using both static and video projections, it is used to evocatively conjure the streets, sunsets, and sewers of Paris with an intriguing art style that is deeply reminiscent of Rembrandt.

With a strong ensemble cast and new innovations in staging, this 25th Anniversary Production is one that offers fresh excitement to longtime fans and a thrilling introduction for first time audiences.

 

Les Misérables runs until June 23 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
 
Click here for tickets and information. 
 
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