Watching Les Miserables performed live on stage is, I guess, an event that you could class as a ‘bucket list’ item (if you had such a list). It’s one of those once in a lifetime things that you just have to do. Well happily I can now say mission accomplished! I have witnessed musical excellence and I will state here and now that it was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of my entire life.
For the record I attended a matinee performance of the acclaimed show on November 16th at The Civic in Auckland. I had booked months and months in advance, attracted by two things. The musical itself of course (as it’s my favourite of the many available) and the location at which it was being staged (the most beautiful and luxurious theatre in this country. I dare someone to prove me wrong).
I was so excited as in all honesty this was probably the only opportunity I would get (discounting winning the lottery) to see it on the stage. And while movie versions of the story are entertaining, there is something so special about a live musical production cannot be matched. The reviews for this staging had been excellent and so it was with great anticipation that I took my seat, waited for the lights to dim, the audience to hush and the first sounds from the orchestra to fill the auditorium.
Oh my but how can I put this … It was everything and so much more.
It was technically very well produced, employing the revolving stage for which I believe it is famous. The sound was excellent and sets very wonderfully atmospheric as we were led on a journey through prison yard, factory floor, seedy public house and onto the streets of revolutionary Paris. It all helped convey meaning and feeling leaving no doubt where we were in the story.
But it is with that story and the performances of those within it that we can marvel.
Powerful. Emotional. Human. Tragic. Dramatic. Bawdy. Comedic. Sinister. Redemption. Sacrifice. Love. Justice. Mercy. These elements and many more were played out with great intensity and passion on stage by a very talented group of actors and singers many who had their origins in New Zealand.
My personal favourite was Hayden Tee who occupied the role of Javert, the relentless man of the law that comes undone by an act of kindness from his nemesis, Jean Valjean. His singing was superb and he stamped his authority over the role and the stage with an immediacy and strength that was hard to match. Much of this is probably due to the way the character is written. Javert occupies a position of control and power in the first half of the show. The actor playing the part has to embody those characteristics with utter conviction for his journey, from a man with no doubts to one whose world has so fallen apart that he commits suicide, to be believable. He must inhabit Javert’s mind and body completely. Tee fulfils everything that is required and goes well beyond. It was so impressive.
Rebecca Wright who plays Fantine was also excellent, but she had to be as Fantine is one of the most tragic figures in the whole story. Used by a former lover, someone she cared deeply for, she is left with a child to raise on her own in a world that has abandoned them and for the most part offers no solace or hope. She struggles to maintain her dignity and self worth in the face of a harsh reality. Wright admirably conveys the despair of a dying woman as she sings to her absent daughter Cosette, assuring her of her love and sadness at having to leave for the next world. I will readily admit that I had a tear in my eye. The emotion being expressed was enough to break the most hardened heart. Fantine is offered some salvation and peace of mind near her end of her life via an act of mercy (again by Jean Valjean) but by then it is too late for her. Fantine’s loss is profound and Wright leaves us in no doubt of it.
But at its core Les Miserables (the musical – I have never read the book on which it is based) is about redemption, particularly of one man, Jean Valjean. He is a man who has fallen foul of the law (he stole a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children during hard times) and has been harshly treated by the French penal system. He breaks his parole in an attempt to start over and live a life of fairness and honour to make up for his past mistakes. James MacKay was great as Jean, displaying tenderness, fear, nobility, strength and vulnerability as he strives to make amends and build a life for himself and his adopted daughter Cosette. His role is not quite as forthright and bombastic as that of his pursuer Javert (although he does get some cracker songs to sing) but it is no less powerful. When he declares his identity to Javert, ‘Who am I … I’m Jean Valjean’, it’s very stirring and MacKay’s soulful rendition of ‘Bring Him Home’ was deeply moving. As Valjean nears the end of his life and is ready to die, MacKay bears the audience his heart as he is revisited by Fantine and eventually joins her on the other side. Powerful stuff indeed!
Emily Robinson as Eponine also played her part very well. Her youthful tale of unrequited love for Marius who sees her only as a friend and her subsequent early death while supporting him and the student uprising, is so poignant and tender in it’s sadness. A young local talent, Robinson manages to convey the futility of Eponine’s affections while not letting her become bitter. She still does the right thing knowing it will bring wished for lover together with her rival. It’s a big ask for a young actress but she admirably gives Eponine life and soul.
It is these characters that captured and held my attention. Their stories are richly layered, complex and multifaceted in their nature which makes them so engaging and interesting. They are the ones that most represent the contradictory nature of life and emotion. They are the most human. Those chosen to play them should be very proud of themselves and all they have accomplished with this production.
But every one of the people on that stage deserved the greatest round of applause because they all came together to put on a fantastic show and I can tell you that the audience greatly appreciated it. We clapped throughout as well as at the end as a mark of respect and admiration, and to say thank you. I enjoyed it immensely and will remember the experience for a very long time.