Sunday 28 October 2012

Les Misérables @ Queen's Theatre, West End

Watching Les Misérables for the first time, it’s easy (if surprising) to see why this has become such an enduring musical.  The plot is an unlikely one and the set lacks the spectacle seen in many modern musical theatre productions, but at its core is a human story and, most importantly, a sumptuous score.

With more deaths than Sweeney Todd, the show certainly lives up to its name.  Les Misérables provides an intense, tragic drama full of desperation, despair and heartbreak.  The novel itself is split into five volumes, which the show attempts to condense into an overly long three hours.  With such a dense multi-layered narrative, it is epic in scope but not always clear and suffers from shallow characterisation, though the expansive cast are easy to sympathise with.  The plot’s lack of momentum isn’t aided by the visuals.  A revolving floor allows for some clever changes of perspective, but the staging is often static and the set lacks spectacle – though this allows the emotion to pour uninhibited over the audience.  Thankfully, the Thénardier characters add a touch of comedy for a much needed change of pace.  The revolutionary context is rich, but the plot eventually descends into a melodramatic love story of operatic proportions.

Thankfully Schönberg’s music is outstanding and elevates the production to match the operatic scope.  Sung-through, the solo numbers and choruses blend into the recitative-like dialogue, whilst thematic motifs are laced throughout the score.  Matched by colourful orchestration, the music adds subtle characterisation to create a cohesive score that enhances the narrative.  The style is classical, but the pop melodies are accessible and emotive.

What’s most impressive is the unending string of hits.  Whilst the narrative relies on the music for depth, the music stands alone, as can be seen by the number of amateur and professional renditions of the songs.  Yet watching the show puts the songs back into context so the audience hears them how they should be performed. 

Furthermore, the songs are performed by a stellar cast who understand the underlying meaning of the lyrics.  Take ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ – it might not be prettily sung, but the result is all the more heartbreaking.  The current London cast is immensely talented without a single weak link in the whole ensemble.  However, it’s Geronimo Rauch as Jean Valjean who really stands out – his accent may waver, but his voice is beautiful.  His moving performance of ‘Bring Him Home’ brought tears to much of the audience.

After 27 years, Les Misérables is far from a relic of the West End.  Owing predominantly to its score, this is a musical that will continue to endure for far longer than one day more.


Watch: Les Misérables is running at the Queen's Theatre, London.