Les Miserables review (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

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Les Mis is a famously long show. I’m not going to take up space reciting the story of Jean Valjean and the pre-French revolution uprising, because it would take a lot of space to unknot the plot for readers, and anybody with a passing interest would surely have a vague understanding by now.
It runs for almost three hours, which is necessary given how much of Victor Hugo’s epic it covers, but also pretty much unheard of in modern commercial theatre. If producers were concerned that their audience’s attention span was shrinking when they opened the English version of the show in 1985, they must be now terrified of letting their audience become bored. The new local production, which opened last night at the Capitol Theatre, seems desperate to make sure you don’t realise that it’s a “long show” by rushing through almost every poignant moment at breakneck speed.
It’s impossible to know exactly whose fault that is. Is it the international directors Laurence Connor and James Powell, who have created a smart new production which has done away with the famous revolving stage of the original and uses beautiful projections inspired by Hugo’s illustrations? Is it Christopher Key, the associate director who has whipped the show into shape for Australia? Is it Geoffrey Castles, the musical director and conductor who sets the flying tempos everybody onstage is required to keep up with? Castles is holding the baton, but I’m sure the directive to “keep it snappy” came from somebody in a higher position. Producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh, maybe?
And it’s not even a musical problem — the score survives and sounds gorgeous at that pace with its updated orchestrations — it’s a dramatic one. Being a completely sung-through musical, the actors (and the audience) are required to jump from thought to thought and moment to moment at an impossible speed, squandering most opportunities for a thought or character arc to develop. Even the deaths feel rushed, particularly in the usually quiet and reflective A Little Fall of Rain, which after a fairly relaxed first verse races towards the finish line. Why not just give it a few more minutes to breathe? Nobody is going to care if it tips just over the three hour mark and suddenly feel the musical was interminably long.
Given the rapturous response it’s receiving, I’m sure that won’t be a problem for most people who feel the show. But I felt nothing — I was never given a moment to — and if you’re not feeling anything in Les Mis, you’ve got to ask what’s gone wrong. While it’s not necessarily a “great” musical — the lyrics are often awkward, the score is lush and iconic but not particularly inventive, and you can sometimes feel the weight of Hugo’s novel holding back the storytelling — it usually pushes all the right buttons.
The real tragedy of this Les Mis is that there’s an excellent production and an excellent cast struggling to get out. Given that the show itself is the star, there’s no undignified stunt casting here, just the right people for the roles.
You couldn’t hope for a better Jean Valjean than Simon Gleeson, who embodies the character’s noble and simple, heroic qualities while holding absolutely nothing back, vocally. Thankfully he, at least, has enough stage time to trace his character’s journey from the convict on the run to the old man who turns his life around with love.
Hayden Tee is staggeringly good as Javert and his glorious take on Stars received a huge response on opening night. Tee doesn’t have the same darkness of vocal tone as most actors who play the role do, but delivers a dramatic performance so strong and detailed you can easily forget any Javerts who went before.
Patrice Tipoki is an excellent fit for Fantine and floats effortlessly through I Dreamed a Dream but doesn’t really get the chance to colour in her take on the role with enough nuance.
Chris Durling is charismatic as Enjolras and delivers a commanding, assured vocal performance. I’m sure many in the audience would still have the breakthrough performance of Anthony Warlow in that role in the original Australian production fresh in their minds, and that Durling doesn’t pale in comparison to those memories is no small feat.
Euan Doidge’s Marius and Emily Langridge’s Cosette are full of youthful energy, even if they don’t exactly set the stage on fire. Kerrie Anne Greenland fares much better as Eponine, bringing new life to On My Own and breaking hearts in her final moments.
And, finally, Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulcahy come close to stealing the show as the Thenardiers (as all good Thenardiers should). They find new comedic beats and emphases and bounce off each other brilliantly. Unsurprisingly, they seem to be given more room to move and play within the score. I suppose the creative powers that be decided the audience would be more patient during the comic relief.
I really wish I could love this production, and I wish it fulfilled its potential to move and inspire. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, but just proves how elastic these unsinkable mega musicals from the 1980s can be and how one problem can fundamentally throw a musical off balance.

[box]Les Miserables is at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney until July 12. Featured image by Matt Murphy.[/box]

22 responses to “Les Miserables review (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

  1. A show,or a movie is designed for one purpose only, to entertain. If the audience is entertained, nothing else matters. Here it seems that the audience WAS entertained. Man “critics”seem to want to show what their knowledge is and forget that they buy only one ticket (probably not even that) and the audience buy many.So if the audience is happy, fuck the citric!

  2. Loved it. Best production of Les Miserables that I have seen. (I have seen most including the 25th Anniversary ) Simon Gleeson is amazing and I went immediately to his website as with the rest of the cast. Hope to see it again in Sydney

  3. I was so looking forward to see this production of Les Miserables, and I was so disappointed. I just couldn’t feel anything, the singing and acting just didn’t move me at all. Everything just moved too fast, 1 scene merged into the other not giving enough time to take these powerful songs and lyrics in. I saw les Miserables in London and New York and that was the most thrilling experience. Saying all that I will still recommend to go and see the show, Les Miserable is a one of a kind sort of show that should not be missed.

  4. A spot on review of an underwhelming production. There were a few fabulous voices, a couple of painful performances, and some very poor directorial decisions. I’ll stick with my dvd of the 10th anniversary concert production.

  5. Pretty sure it’s set post-revolution seeing as characters in the book are always going on about Napoleon.
    This is the second review I’ve read that mentions the fast tempo and underwhelming nature of the show, which is disappointing. I’m still excited to see it for myself, but I think I was spoiled by the West End cast. Here’s hoping the students are appropriately fleshed out! I love me some Grantaire.

  6. It’s now intermission and as, being the only Les Mis tragic I know, I am here alone passing time. It’s been a stunning production so far. I love the fast pace which adds rsther than detracts from the drama….have to go as the second act is about to start. Yippee. ..I love Victor Hugo

  7. 5 April 15 performance – Unfortunately my rating is 1 out of 5 due to the shockingly poor singing and performance of Marius. He could not hold one note and went flat a few times. I expected much more. The rest was good and the set was excellent. The sound did not carry to the dress circle.

    1. 9-April performance and Maruis was no better. Perhaps he should rest his voice and let the understudy take the role. Considering the rest of the talent was great to phenomenal, I’m surprised Marius was cast with a voice like that!

  8. Our fave musical also. Viewed in London 85, Melbourne and Brisbane.
    We flew to Sydney for this production. Disappointed. Timing was very poor; after poignant moments allow us to share the pathos.
    Singing was of a very good standard considering the speed .
    In the dress circle it seemed ‘over miked’.
    The visuals? Simply stunning – this was indeed Paris of the 1860’s.

  9. I can’t agree more with this review. It was so rushed, it drove me nuts. Why would they do that? Many of the the songs lost all power and meaning.
    I am a Les Mis tragic as well, so I was massively excited and moved by the excellently performed first few songs; by A Little Fall of Rain, which usually reduces me to a blubbering mess, I was so disappointed with Marius’ weak voice and inability to hold a note (WTH casting?!) I was completely unmoved.
    Lucky the set was so beautiful and inventive, and Val Jean, Javert, the students and Thenadiers more than made up for the weaknesses.
    Last thing: I cannot for the life of me remember Gavroche singing Sparrow in a Hat. Did they cut it, or had I had one too many sparkling?!

  10. Yep, just saw it, totally ruined by the pacing. Can I get a refund because of atrocious pacing ? The cast was decent, (well Marius seemed to base his performance on the Jonas brother who was famously terrible.) but yeah.. just such a waste…all to save 20 minutes ? Extremely disappointed. Do they honestly think the audience would just start walking out if the show was 3 hours long ? Why ruin a show this way ?? Emotionless, underwhelming performance 🙁

  11. My first Les Mis experience. Great sets and lighting, but for the most part I could not understand the lyric – which was a problem as I was unfamiliar with the storyline. Not sure why (we were in the dress circle) but the ennunciation seemed poor, the music often overwhelming the singing and the sound quality often overly loud and distorted. I guess for those who know the story and lyrics it may not have been a big problem , but for me it become a bit of an endurance test.

  12. August 29 and this show has not got any better.
    This review is spot on with the comments about this production being rushed. Now in its final weeks, this show seems in a a BIG rush to get to the end of the season. I have never seen the characters race through their songs and dialogue so fast and with music played at a ridiculous pace in the dozen productions of Les Miz I have seen around the world. And someone needs to go back and read the script as there were times the actors were performing actions and emotions that were contrary to what was coming out of their mouths. Some of the actors are brilliant – Hayden Tee is a revelation. Others, I have seen better interpretations on the amateur stage. Yes, seriously.
    Great review, Ben – this is Les Miz In a Frenzy. And for the first time ever, I too felt nothing at all.

  13. So glad I just read these reviews because I thought I was becoming a snob. I saw this production with my two boys at the Capitol this week (school holidays) and had built it up in their minds to be the experience of a lifetime. Somehow, it just didn’t do it for me. It felt like a series of famous songs we all know, intermingled with a lot of nothingness, and boy, did they rush through it!
    I’ve seen Les Mis 2 times (if I remember). Melbourne and west end. This production did absolutely nothing for me on every level except one – Kerrie Anne Greenland as Eponine simply stole the show for me.
    Unfortunately, I spent a lot of the time trying to understand what they were ‘saying’. The rest of the time I was thinking, “Am I getting old? Is this the twitter/facebook/youtube/ wtf version of this timeless piece?” (And I’m not that old!)
    When around 1/10 of the audience (that I could see) stood for a standing ovation at the end, all I could think to myself was “You haven’t seen it before, have you!” Sorry. Just being honest.

  14. Brisbane: my theatre going companion who is a long time theatre buff, but this is one show she’s managed to miss started loving it then at the interval less then by the end looked at me and said “it lacked heart”…. I was “lost” by the first two scenes – the new blocking and choreo is woeful, the lighting weird and half the leads aren’t up to the task. The ensemble are good and Mulchay and Ashley are magnetic as the Thenardiers. The standing ovation was the most crazed hysterical forced action I’ve seen in a theatre. And it’s hard to mark it down when you do know people in the cast who are working hard to make it entertaining and memorable. But, 6/10 is all I can give….

  15. 27 November, Brisbane.
    This was the 4th time I have seen Les Mis. The first was back in the 80’s in Brisbane, and most recently before tonight was London in September 2013. I have been looking forward to this night since the Australian tour was first announced. As soon as Brisbane went on sale, I booked tickets and my airfares from North Qld.
    Well, what an incredibly underwhelming and disappointing performance. I feel just gutted. I found this review and comments just now as I came looking for reviews to see if I was the only one that walked away feeling like this. It seems not.
    Firstly, the acoustics were dreadful. I was in the 5th row and couldn’t hear the singing. I know the words by heart but could barely make out what they were saying. It felt so incredibly rushed. I didn’t realise til I read this review that it WAS rushed! All performances were weak. None of the singing was strong, it had no umph. ‘The Confrontation’ duet between Valjean and Javert was weak. I felt the Thenardiers were really terrible. They absolutely stole the show in London, just brilliant. They did not entertain me at all tonight and I was getting really annoyed with Thenardier acting moronic and poking out his tongue all the time. At least 30 times through the show he poked out his tongue. Thenardier is supose to be cunning, sly, clever and clownish but not completely and utterly slobbish, idiotic and moronic like tonight. Neither of them engaged me at all and their singing was weak.
    After a miserable first half, I looked forward to the barricade scene. This scene was amazing in London. The slow motion of the falling bodies with the 2 second freeze was breathtaking. In Brisbane tonight it was rushed and sloppy. It seemed very amature. Red and Black is probably my favourite number of the production and it wasn’t strong and powerful at all. I don’t know if it was the direction, the cast, the acoustics or what it was but it well and truely missed the mark. Gavroche was brilliant in London. He really engaged with the audience too. His part in London seemed bigger than the Australian production. It seemed that he was just thrown in for good measure in tonight’s show because they had to, not because he was an intergral part of the show.
    In London, my sister in law and I stood for a good 10 minutes in standing ovation. There wasn’t a bum on a seat. The show was breathtaking. Tonight maybe 5-10% of theatre goers stood for standing ovation. All I could think was ‘you lot haven’t seen this before have you.’

    1. Unfortunately Rebecca I have to agree. There was no empathy or emotion for any of the performances. I tried to get into it but the constant singing of 5 words as quickly as possible then break then another quick 5 drove me insane. Every performer did it. I felt nothing but annoyed, my favorite musical had been ruined.

  16. I couldn’t agree more. I have just seen the Brisbane show for the second time as the first performance was so disappointing I wanted to give everyone involved the benefit of the doubt. I am a huge supporter of Musical Theatre and do not set out to pick shows to pieces – I have never even responded to this type of forum before. The overwhelming disappointment is the singing and acting – you can have all the amazing effects and sets you like but if the individual performances are not of the required standard for a professional production than the show just does not cut it. The two male leads are convincing, however, this is such an ensemble piece that if there are numerous weak links the whole production suffers. Enjolras was out of tune on both occasions (at the professional level this was a shock) and Cosette’s top notes where literally painful to listen to – how can this be when over 800 singers Australia wide audition for WAAPA every year and only the best 16 are taken? Are the performers exhausted and this is affecting their ability to deliver quality singing? I am just trying to find the answers as to why this production makes me feel so out of sorts. Other questions – why was a first year graduate from the QLD Conservatorium of Music given the understudy role of Madame Thenardier when she obviously just did not have the acting experience or the comic timing to pull it off? This is a full priced PROFESSIONAL production, but I have to admit that the last two amateur productions I have seen in regional Queensland in recent years captured the essence of the show more successfully – how can that possibly be?? Why was the audience not given even 5 seconds to absorb the horror of the barricade after the students were all shot? What on earth was the rush at this critical point in the story? I agree that unless you have been to a performance of Les Mis somewhere in the world where the entire audience is on their feet at the end of the show (and not in a rush to beat the crowd to the car park) then you have not experienced the true gut-wrenching musical that is Les Miserables.

  17. Oh dear. I have just introduced my kids to the Phantom (on (dvd) and was going to introduce them to a live production of either Phantom or my fav Les Mis. I was going to get us on the plane and get tickets to Sydney. Having read your reviews, I am not going to bother. I love the revolving stage and the poignancy of the sacrifice of Enjolras and his freedom fighters moment. If this production doesn’t have the revolving stage, then nah, it doesn’t cut it.Saving my money, ain’t going to part it for this time. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

  18. Saw Les Mis in Melbourne 2014 loved it so saw it again in Sydney 2015 still loved it & enjoyed every minute of the show. Had never seen a stage production of it before though was familiar with the music. Cant believe these dreadful reviews

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