A musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg. Directed by Bill Millerd. An Arts Club Theatre Company production. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, July 8. Continues until August 16
The amazing thing about Les Misérables is that, at the exact moment that you’re going, “My God, could it get any cornier?” the show brings tears to your eyes.
Adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Miz is about Jean Valjean, who has served 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. When Inspector Javert finally releases him, Valjean is forced to carry a yellow card that marks him as an ex-con—and makes survival impossible. So he tears up the card, adopts a new identity, and becomes a successful factory owner. When Fantine, one of his workers, dies, he adopts her daughter, Cosette. But Javert is always on his tail.
In Act 1, there’s so much plot and it goes by so quickly that you could get windburn. Les Miz is pseudo-operatic, so most of the songs are delivered at full, exhausting volume. And composer Claude-Michel Schönberg repeats his favourite musical themes ad nauseam.
And yet, Les Misérables knows how to push buttons. As a young woman, Cosette falls in love with Marius, one of the students who take to the barricades during the Paris Uprising of 1832. Valjean joins the protest, and when Marius is wounded, he sings “Bring Him Home”, a kind of prayer, over the young man’s body. These two have barely met, but we buy into their relationship because it’s archetypal and because the song’s melody is lovely. Out of nowhere, we have a weeper.
It doesn’t hurt that the cast in director Bill Millerd’s production is strong. Andrew Wheeler and Nicola Lipman play a pair of streetwise schemers called the Thénardiers, and they are to die for, largely because they’re having the time of their lives. Wheeler is fabulously playful, forgetting how to genuflect and inventing little minuet steps for himself.
And Lipman is a genius, so sly and funny as her Mme. Thénardier undercuts her husband and loves him up at the same time. When they sing the rollicking “Master of the House” together, it’s a showstopper.
Marius is a thankless role—like Tony in West Side Story, he is a two-dimensionally love-struck straight man—but Sayer Roberts brings winning sincerity and a great set of pipes to the part. With that combo, he makes “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, Marius’s ballad about fallen comrades, genuinely moving.
Jaime Olivia MacLean, who is nine—nine, for pity’s sake—impresses as the Young Cosette with her powerful, pitch-perfect singing. And playing the Thénardiers’ innocent daughter, Éponine, Jennie Neumann capitalizes on the role’s poignancy and shapes her songs beautifully.
Although, on opening night, Kieran Martin Murphy (Jean Valjean) struggled a bit at both ends of the huge vocal range the part demands, the guy’s got solid chops, and he delivers a portrait of affecting dignity.
Warren Kimmel, who’s playing Javert, is one of the most gifted musical-theatre performers you’re ever likely to see. His baritone is as beautiful as ever and his emotionally intense portrayal helps to humanize the character.
Les Misérables remains a musical about the poor for the well-heeled—if you’re sitting in a corner of the balcony, you’re still paying $79 on a Saturday night.
But you know what? It’s also the most entertaining show in town.