Misery loves company
October 7, 2010
Last Sunday, the theatregoing world and its wife (or civil partner, at least) flocked to the O2 to hear some of the most soul-searing music ever to fill the Greenwich air. Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and even Sir Paul McCartney all failed to tempt me to the Dome this year, but for this gig I would have sold my granny. It was, of course, the 25th Anniversary celebration of Les Misérables, starring a host of shiny stars from its many casts in the West End, Broadway and on tour. Having already been to see (& adored) the culmination of this year’s anniversary tour at the Barbican in September – and being in entirely the wrong city this month – I couldn’t justify the £100 or so for a seat in facial-expression range, so I booked myself a comfy pew at Cardiff’s Cineworld, fortuitously broadcasting the concert live on the night. Having previously never seen anything like this in a cinema, I would seriously recommend it – although the camerawork was obviously a bit erratic at times, the full force of the emotion was directed at you with proper facial close-ups, as well as grand-scale shots of the ensemble. Alas, this also meant we got to see the full anatomical workings of powerhouse Lea Salonga‘s vocals, which, while fascinating, were a little distracting from the drama at hand. But I digress.
It was a sensational production for many reasons. Not only Ms ‘Wow Factor’ Salonga, but Matt Lucas being the shock of the night with his witty, original and perfectly seedy Thérnadier and Katie Hall (taking over from an indisposed Camilla Kerslake) and her spirited songbird Cosette, among others. While my initial reservations that producers had simply gone for big name casting were quickly placated by Alfie Boe‘s assured and surprisingly emotive lead, there was one big fat weak link in rodenty Nick Jonas, the only thorn in my side the entire night. It is horrendous that casting directors overlooked any number of actors in posession of a pair of testicles in favour of this reedily-voiced, distractingly ugly young man. Sorry tweens, I’m sure he’s a nice person, but he did not hold even one long note for its entire duration and was dwarfed by the consistent talent of his co-stars. I would have loved to report that his acting saved him, but unfortunately that would have required him to have sung and kept control of his squinty face. I don’t want to give the Jonas too much airtime, so we’ll move swiftly on to Ramin Karimloo, whose Enjolras was not only deliciously sexy, but a fiery, dimply rocketship of a man, with a voice to match. Norm Lewis made for a steely, compelling Javert, but I missed the tenderness and lightness of some of his predecessor’s vocals. Other highlights were Earl Carpenter (the UK tour’s Javert) as the Bishop and Samantha Barks as a stunning Eponine. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Barks during the show – in Act 1 she struck me as having the perfect face, presence and tone for the part, but in Act 2 some weaknesses were shown up in her lower register, especially in hitting the notes required for A Little Fall of Rain. She just got away with it by dying with such commitment, but the lack of range was noticeable. She was also going for several different accents in order to achieve different sounds – cockney at times, implacably posh at others. I can see why producers went for her though, it would be hard to pass up such an impossibly beautiful little thing with such a big voice.
Some of the casting was definitely for PR reasons; Alfie Boe got a huge reaction from the Cardiff audience, but if I was to be picky I’d say he was a little bit plummy and warbly for Valjean (a little bit operatic – pretty inevitable when you cast an opera star) and I longed for some of the rockstar quality of John Owen-Jones, who so impressed me at the Barbican weeks before. Jean Valjean is not an aristocrat from the beginning; imprisonment has made him feral, and I just feel some of those early soliloquies benefit from more of a rawness to them than Boe’s polished tenor could offer. I did jump up and down in my seat just a little when Owen-Jones emerged with original Valjean Colm Wilkinson and current Queen’s lead Simon Bowman to perform a ‘four tenors’ version of Bring Him Home with Alfie Boe during the finale. Wilkinson’s vulnerable tenor was as beautiful as it is on the original 1985 soundtrack, and most of the Orignal London Cast also made an appearance for a star-studded rendition of One Day More to round off the performance.
This felt like a special night for me; my parents used to play the tape of Les Mis in our car on long journeys until their three little girls became word-perfect (whores, death and all) and I loved the music long before I could fully understand the poetry of the lyrics. The writer, composer and lyricist made a very touching speech at the end, still seemingly baffled by the success of the show and devotion of its fans (Cameron Mackintosh had a good stab at ‘baffled’ but as usual, remained set to ‘smug’). This show has everything; comedy, tragedy, spirituality, some of the finest music ever to grace the stage, and in this case, a fantastic ensemble. I can easily see how it has lasted a quarter of a century, and I hope to be able to introduce my children to it in another decade or two. If you missed the extravaganza, the DVD will be well worth its £12.99 price tag (especially if it has behind-the-scenes footage), and you can use the nifty fast-forward technology to obliterate Nick Jonas from the experience entirely. Lucky you.