Les Misérables is a bonafide phenomenon of the stage. Based on the novel by Victor Hugo; a story of one man's journey to redemption set against the backdrop of class-struggle and political unrest in post-Napoleonic France, Les Mis is hugely ambitious in scope and scale. It's a grand, sweeping epic and an iconic mega-musical.
Les Mis originally opened in London's West End in 1985 and has played there ever since making it one of the longest running musicals in history. The show has been so prolific that chances are, even if you haven't seen it, you'd still be able to recognize some of its iconic songs like On My Own, I Dreamed a Dream, Do You Hear the People Sing, and Bring Him Home.
In the past 28 years, dozens of productions have appeared on stages around the world including a resoundingly popular Canadian production that Mirvish presented in Toronto at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1989.
In 2009, producer Cameron Mackintosh commissioned a new version of Les Mis for the show's 25th anniversary. He brought on director Laurence Connor to re-invent and re-imagine the show for a new tour. That 25th anniversary tour is the basis for this new Canadian production that Mirvish is currently presenting in Toronto at the Princess of Wales Theatre.
Now, I guess you could say I'm a pretty hardcore fan of the show. I became very attached to the original production of Les Mis having seen it multiple times over the years in Canada, on the U.S. national tour, on Broadway and in London's West End. Admittedly, I'm a bit of a purist (don't even bring up the topic of that godawful movie version from last year in my presence).
I was skeptical and I wasn't sure how I'd respond to this new version of the show, after all, why mess with a classic, right? I'm happy to say that I was totally blown away. The new Les Mis is as grand, sweeping, emotional and epic as the original but it also feels incredibly fresh and dynamic.
This new version is completely re-thought and re-designed. The familiar turntable stage from the original production is gone and it's not missed; the new musical staging is actually more dynamic without it. The director also brings out a lot of great nuances in the story and several character moments in the show that either weren't there or weren't as strongly developed before.
The new production features projections based on some of Victor Hugo's original paintings. I was wary of their use since projections are the technology du jour in theatrical production design and are rarely done well but I was pleasantly surprised. For the most part the projections are beautifully incorporated and used to extend and complete the visual palette of the scene without drawing unnecessary attention to themselves.
Oddly, the director also made the choice to cut the few projections featured in the original production; the ones that provided time and place details when the story skips ahead a few years or changes location. The tempo of the music is also sped up in this new version so the story moves along at breakneck pace especially in the initial prologue section and it can be hard to follow. A quick skim of the synopsis in the programme might be helpful for anybody not already familiar with the plot.
The strong direction and design is complemented by a stellar, largely Canadian, cast. The lead role of the reformed convict Jean Valjean is played by Ramin Karimloo who grew up in Richmond Hill and is something of a superstar in London's West End. This engagement marks his much-anticipated return to Canada. Karimloo gives a stunning performance. He undeniably brings something unique to the role; he imbues his Valjean with a rare passion and a burning intensity.
Canadian Idol winner Melissa O'Neil is surprisingly well-cast as the tough but lovelorn street rat Eponine. She gives a moving and fine-tuned performance. In fact, she's probably one of the best actresses I've seen in the role. Cliff Saunders and Lisa Horner deliver hilariously over-the-top comedic performances as the scoundrel inn-keepers the Thénardiers.
All-in-all, this new Toronto production is nothing short of spectacular. If you're seeing the show for the first time this is as strong a production as you'll find anywhere in the world. If you're a long-time fan of the show like me, this new version will allow you to re-discover the musical and see it with fresh eyes. It's as epic and emotionally resonant as ever. As far as I'm concerned this production is the new definitive version of Les Mis.
- Les Misérables is playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre (300 King Street West) through December 22, 2013
- Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday at 1:30 p.m.
- Tickets $35.00 to $130.00
- Tickets are available by phone at 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333, in-person at the Princes of Wales Theatre box office or online at Mirvish.com
Photos of the Les Misérables Toronto cast 2013, Ramin Karimloo, and Melissa O'Neil by Matthew Murphy
By Wayne Leung, Managing Editor of Mooney on Theatre