Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Original French Text by Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel
Free Rain Theatre Company, The Q
Directed by Cate Clelland
Musically directed by Nicholas Griffin
Choreographed by Michelle Heine
6-22 April 2017
Les Misérables will always pack in an audience. It is trotted out with clockwork regularity in most towns and has virtually become cliché. There’s a good reason for that, it’s a bloody good show, and for any company Les Mis is a smart and guaranteed bums-on-seats choice. That does not mean it is a show that can rest on its laurels or direct itself however.
Although some aspects of the musical are sacrosanct (think red flag waving at end of first act behind marching chorus) it requires decisive and cohesive choices in both direction and design.
From the company that recently brought us an outstanding production of Wicked, I’m afraid to report that Les Misérables is a significant step backwards for Free Rain. If you wish for the usual and predictable Canberra critic rave I suggest you stop reading here.
In The Canberra Times promo it said that Free Rain were going for a “stripped back” concept for this show. I do not think this has been successfully achieved and furthermore I believe that idea is simply a conceptual cop out.
Les Mis by nature (and largely due to the music) is intended to be sweeping and stirring. A “pared back” aesthetic *might* work, if it was executed with a clarity of concept that distilled the essence of the character in song – even a good concert-type version has reasonable appeal.
Unfortunately in this iteration, the direction is often unimaginative, largely static and peppered with strange entries and exits. Crowd scenes frequently default to lines or a large semi-circle and just seem cramped into the small playing space. Choices to keep the focus of the scene upstage – for instance placing Enjolras at the back table of the ABC café or the ghostly trio behind focus in the finale – means that opportunities to conjure those classic Les Mis beat-inside-your-chest moments are needlessly squandered. Fight scenes need a lot of work and dramatic moments – such as Javert’s suicide – are sacrificed to suit the scenery rather than the show. Overall these flaws mean it is very difficult to be swept up in the narrative and really feel for the characters and that is a big problem.
Design also misses the mark here. The set, for instance, is an oddity. On one side a vined gate, on the other a structure that is reminiscent of a post-apocalyptic jungle gym. These static pieces remain so for the entire performance and are not well utilised. The choice to leave an open pit for the orchestra robs the production of much needed space and everything just looks congested and frankly, cheap.
The props and furniture items too lack enough distinction to determine whether they are intentionally minimalist and non-matching or just unfinished.
The costumes were generally appropriate with a few exceptions – for example, the white pyjamas for the barefoot dead students may not have been the best choice for a scene which demands such emotional gravity.
Technically the show is also a bit odd. Use of spot colour and moving gobos syncopated with memorable Les Mis riffs just seems strange and the rainbow gun explosions during the battle sequences are equally perplexing. The most successful lighting moments are achieved with white light alone and I also quite like the use of back lighting in several scenes.
The sound is well balanced, which is no mean feat, but the curious use of canned sound effects gives more questions than answers.
The orchestra provide a fine accompaniment of the rich score and there are some nice choral moments. However, there are several obvious misstimes between the orchestra and soloists, especially during recitatives but I suspect this isn’t largely the orchestra’s fault.
Although not a dancing show there are some movement requirements and the wedding ball sequence fit the brief, but other moments seemed overdone, such as the workman march at the beginning of Act 1.
Peter Cousens as Valjean is trying hard but over-gesticulates which contributes to a lack of emotional authenticity and makes the occasional lyric error (aka sacrilege for Les Mis aficionados). However when songs are in the dead centre of his range his vocal richness really shines.
Sam Ward as Marius clearly has a beautiful voice but needs to develop more chemistry with his counterparts to improve believability. Whilst not necessarily his choice I also don’t think the propensity for Marius to bound in and out of scenes works as it’s intended.
I’ve decided not to offer a critique of the amateur performers on this occasion. This is primarily because I don’t think they deserve to shoulder any blame for the overarching artistic choices which unfortunately are likely to have adversely affected performances. Needless to say the cast are clearly trying their best and there are some truly lovely vocal moments and performances. I commend the whole cast for their contribution to the show.
Unfortunately though, I fear that the flaws in direction and design are pervasive and not likely to be easily fixed or remedied with performance experience as one might expect throughout the run. The issue here isn’t pace or energy, it’s substance, or lack thereof.
A lot of work clearly goes into an amateur musical. I love Les Mis as a show, and I desperately wanted to enjoy this. I also aim to be balanced and do not relish being overly negative.
That said, Free Rain has positioned itself as a pro-am company with a ticket price to match. Therefore I believe it should be held to an even higher standard than typical amateur fare. In my opinion it is the “pro” elements that have let the show down and that is a true shame. That it will sell-out is testament to the powerful appeal of the show and unfortunately not due to artistic endeavour on this occasion.