Spectacular Voices in an Epic Show
Les Misérables is a singer’s show. And, fortunately, the production currently on stage at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre features a cast of powerful voices.
Les Mis is the musical version of Victor Hugo’s classic story. For the stage, we are first told the back story: Jean Valjean is caught stealing bread for his hungry sister and is given 19 years of hard labour. When he gets out of jail, he is shown compassion by a priest and decides to live a better life. But to do that, he has to escape the relentless and revengeful Police Inspector Javert who wants to throw him back in jail. So Valjean lives under an assumed name, hides his past conviction, and becomes a successful businessman and mayor of a French town. When Fantine, one of his employees dies, he promises to raise her daughter. He saves Cosette from the Thenardiers: a cruel couple who have been paid by Fantine to look after little Cosette. They have abused her, while spoiling their own little daughter Eponine.
Circumstances force Valjean to reveal his true identity to save an innocent man, who is mistaken for him, from going to prison. So Valjean and his adopted daughter Cosette are on the run from Javert and move to Paris. Years go by, and although it’s long past the French Revolution, there is still unrest among students, and they take to the streets. Eponine is in love with a student named Marius, but he in turn is in love with Cosette. Valjean goes to the barricade to fight with the students, and saves Marius’ life when he realizes that Marius and Cosette are in love. Sadly, Eponine dies in the battle, while her parents are out looting. Eventually Cosette and Marius marry, and Valjean dies, knowing that the young couple will be happy together.
It’s an epic tale of love and war, and the entire story is sung. So, the better the voices, the better Les Mis will be. And in this production the role of Jean Valjean is presented as it should be by Ramin Karimloo. Karimloo is an Iranian-born Canadian, who grew up in Peterborough and Richmond Hill. He has been on stage in London’s West End for a number of years, and now we are grateful he is back home in Toronto. He possesses a amazing vocal range and his voice is rich and smooth. It is worth the price of the ticket just to hear him sing the powerful and poignant prayer “Bring Him Home”.
Earl Carpenter as Inspector Javert also possesses a rich voice, particularly in his haunting suicide song, “Soliloquy”. Carpenter demonstrates Javert’s torment – he is someone who thinks everything should be black and white and when he learns there are grey areas, he cannot handle his inner turmoil.
Melissa O’Neil as Eponine reduces the audience to tears with her very emotional song “On My Own.” She, too, expresses her torment, learning that the man she loves takes her for granted and loves someone else.
It was especially exciting to see so many performers we know from shows here in southwestern Ontario on the big stage in Toronto. I was especially proud of our friend, former Canadian idol Melissa O’Neil, whom we got to know when she appeared in High School Musical and Dance Legends at Huron Country Playhouse. Back in 2010, I blogged about her at https://www.entertainthisthought.com/2010/09/10/canadian-idol-is-our-theatre-idol where she said that she sang “On My Own” on Canadian Idol and mentioned that Eponine would be her “Dream Role”. It’s so nice to see such a great singer land the part and handle it perfectly.
It’s also delightful to see Lisa Horner in the hilarious role of Mme. Thenardier. Lisa, along with Cliff Saunders as M. Thenardier, provides the comic relief in this otherwise tension-filled story. Lisa, who just finished a Dora-award winning run as the Wicked Witch in Wizard of Oz, is well-known to Huron Country Playhouse audiences for that same role, as well as leading roles in 9 to 5 and Hairspray. She is best known as the “Start the Car” Ikea commercial lady.
Mark Urhe, of course, was brilliant this past summer as Sir Lancelot in Spamalot at Huron Country Playhouse. Mark as the student leader Enjolras demonstrates his rich voice with a moving rendition of “The People’s Song”, and other powerful numbers.
Also from last summer’s hit Spamalot is Kristen Peace, lending her strong voice to the ensemble. Sarnia’s own Chris Zonneville brings his rich voice to Les Mis, as well. Last year, he was part of the amazing cast of Songs of Sinatra at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia.
Another Canadian Idol star, finalist Aaron Walpole of St. Thomas is the understudy for Jean Valjean, taking the role on a regular basis, demonstrating his incredible voice.
It is thrilling to see so many familiar faces in the Canadian cast. All the memorable songs are sung with such emotion.
The staging is new: in the past the barricade rotated on a turntable, which always seemed cumbersome and slowed down the show. I’m pleased they moved away from that.
But two things have been changed that just don’t ring true. The prisoners are rowing a ship, while in previous productions they were in a chain gang breaking up rocks. The idea of rowing doesn’t make sense – where are they going, and why are they still in France? Later, Marius and the students plan their actions in a pub. After the fighting, all the other young men are killed, and Marius sings the poignant “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. In previous productions, Marius returned to the pub where his friends should have been. In this version, it seems odd that he sings in a cobblestone street where there are no chairs or tables.
Ramin Karimloo is Broadway bound as Jean Valjean in March 2014. Be sure to catch him in the two months while he’s still in Toronto!
Les Misérables continues with eight shows a week at the Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street, Toronto, extended until February 2, 2014. Call TicketKing 416-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333 or visit www.mirvish.com for tickets.
Produced by Cameron Mackintosh
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Musical direction by James Dodgson
Performed by Ramin Karimloo, Earl Carpenter, Genevieve LeClerc, Melissa O’Neil, Samatha Hill, Lisa Horner, Cliff Saunders, Mark Uhre, Perry Sherman, et al.
Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto
October 9 – December 22, 2013 ~ Extended to February 2, 2014
Reviewed by Mary Alderson