Review by Sasha Singer-Wilson
Music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Bill Millerd
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Stage
Most of us know something of the story of Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel, Les Misérables. Or, we know a song or two from its musical adaptation, which premiered in London in 1985. “There is a castle in the clouds/ I like to go there in my sleep”, or “On my own/ pretending he’s beside me”. Les Misérables is one of the most famous musicals, having been produced in over three hundred and twenty cities around the world, not to mention turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in 2012. The London production is the world’s longest running musical. While some of the themes are still resonant, it seems that the most powerful connection is that of nostalgia. The Arts Club brings back their 2009 hit production, and fills the Stanley with lots of melancholy and a little bit of marvel.
The operatic song cycle is about Jean Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy), a misjudged man who has served almost two decades in a prison labour camp for stealing bread for his starving niece. The antagonist, Inspector Javert (Warren Kimmel), releases him from prison, but Valjean must carry a card that marks him as an ex-convict. In hopes of a fresh start, Valjean shreds the card and takes on a new identity, allowing him to become a prosperous businessman. When one of his workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rebecca Talbot), dies in his arms, he adopts her daughter, Cosette (played by nine-year-old Jaime Olivia MacLean and then by Kaylee Harwood). They become involved in the uprising of the French Revolution and the melodrama continues until the final curtain.
Boubil and Schönberg’s musical is over-the-top and favourite melodies are repeated over and over. Kretzmer’s English translation is in one moment cringe-worthily cheesy and then poignant the next. Of particular note is the boisterous number Master of the House in which Nicola Lipman and Andrew Wheeler shine as sinister innkeepers M. and Mme. Thenardier. Jennie Neumann nails the spirited Éponine, and her song, On My Own, is a real treat.
As Valjean, Kieran Martin Murphy brings stoic tenderness but, in this particular matinee performance, struggled with the vocal demands of the role. Bruce Kellett’s re-orchestration shaves the musicians down to six. My companion and I wondered, at intermission, if the tracks had been pre-recorded. “It sounds like they are singing karaoke,” I said. Unfortunately the score was no match for the vocal prowess of the company and cheapened the experience. After a quick bit of research when I got home, I learned that half of the band is on keyboards. That’s why it sounded like a DJ from the 80’s was involved.
Scenically, Millerd’s production is sparser than a Broadway touring production. While the wow factor is diminished, the intimacy of the Stanley lends itself well to a simpler staging. The design team of Ted Roberts (set), Marsha Sibthorpe (lights), and Alison Green (costumes) bring the kaleidoscope world to life, with shifting archways, morose shadows and the disparity between the rich and the poor illustrated through characters dressed in both tattered rags and shining silk.
I was struck by the fact that, in a show with a cast of nineteen multi-talented performers, all of them were white. While this may be historically accurate, in a 2015 production taking place in a diverse city, this casting choice strikes me as not only dated, but bordering on distasteful.
An entertaining Saturday afternoon at the theatre, the Vancouver audience clearly enjoyed Les Misérables. Why don’t you see for yourself–can this classic endure the tests of time? Or, are we in need of present-day stories that reflect the complexities of our times with a new tune?
Les Misérables plays at The Stanley until August 16th. For tickets, click here.
Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred theatre maker and writer. She has worked with over a dozen award-winning theatre companies. She makes theatrical things with the immersive company the blood projects and tiny literary things with these five minutes. Sasha is an Associate Producer of Brave New Play Rites and is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at The University of British Columbia.