Author: Laura Irish
Published: July 7th 2017
Les Misérables was the first show I ever saw on Broadway. I was seventeen years old and I knew right then that Theatre was what I wanted to do with my life. I love the music, the characters, the story and the feeling I get everytime I hear the lyrics: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”
Here’s the thing, when you produce a musical of such proportion and popularity, you run the risk of the audience knowing it well, having seen it before and having strong memories and opinions about it. Not to mention a Hollywood hit to compare it to. This is even more so when a company chooses to repeat a production of a show with a different cast five years on from the last time they produced it (I saw it then too). Stakes are high with the production of this show currently performed by the two ambitious Nelson Youth Theatre casts at the magnificent Theatre Royal Nelson.
I had the pleasure of seeing Opening Night #2: Team Saul. This cast was full of talented singers of all ages, child and adult. The voice of nine year old Joelle Noar as Little Cosette was beautifully clear and heartbreaking in Castle on a Cloud. Bri Weir (Fantine) shone when she sang the famous, I Dreamed a Dream. Annie Davies as Cosette wowed me with her sparkling high notes. Carter Stormann sang from his soul in his role as the Bishop. And Vaughn Birss stole my heart with his sweet singing voice and enthusiastic portrayal of the cheeky and brave Gavroche.
But there were two absolute stand out singers for me in this production: MacKenzie Gardner as Eponine and Saul Gibney as Jean Valjean. Gardner is a Broadway star in the making. At only 14 years old, she sang with precision, clarity and confidence. It seemed as if that role was written for her voice. She smashed it.
And as far as singing goes, if you haven’t heard Saul Gibney sing, do yourself a favour and go find him and make him sing for you. His control, range and tone gave me goosebumps from his very first note. He is a treasure in Nelson and the youth of this cast should count themselves lucky to be able to learn from such a seasoned singer. At one point, he was carrying an unconscious Marius (played maturely by the talented Jack Munro) on his back and still hit every note.
The clever minimalism and mobility of the set made scene changes fast and it also meant that more responsibility was put on the actors to hold the attention of the audience. Matthew Edgar (Enjolras) commanded the stage completely with every line he uttered. His focus was unwavering. Jamie Morgan as Thenardier was also impressive with his dedication to his character, comedic timing and playful connection with the audience. And the mark of a true professional is when you are so committed to staying in character that the audience is drawn to your performance even when you’re playing the chorus. Yitzin Ruiz Lopez (Marius in Team Daniel) was in tonight’s chorus and made the crowd scenes come to life with his focus, believability and complete support of other cast members.
I also commend the costuming department for the absolutely mammoth job of clothing so many actors and doing it with style and consistency. In addition to costumes, all the tech crew, makeup artists, musicians, and directors should be acknowledged for a job well done.
While I enjoyed this production, I do have a few bits of constructive feedback for this cast. I would challenge the cast to pay a little more attention to some basic theatrical conventions. A few times the actor’s faces were blocked or turned away upstage during crucial plot points or lines. Also, I’m aware that this next point is partially due to the script but I think it’s fair to note that I felt slightly uncomfortable during one adult themed scene which had some actors of varying age ranges playing opposite each other.
On a more artistic note, I would encourage the singers to try to believe every word that they are singing. Occasional off notes, tech problems or missed lyrics are immediately forgiven if you are completely enthralled in your character. If you don’t believe what you’re singing, we know. And if you do, we’re all the way there with you.
I would also encourage the directors to use the music as a guide to find even more ideas for movement. Some moments of importance in the score of Les Misérables are marked by such clear crescendo that they are clues to the action which could be occurring.
But regardless of the suggestions above, the real test is whether this massive undertaking of a production made me feel something even after the tenth time seeing the show onstage and the hundredth time listening to its music. Because that’s the point of what we do, right?
When I saw the red flag raise tonight and a collective of young local actors were singing “When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums, there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes”… tears came to my eyes and I felt proud of these performers, proud of the path this play set me on when I was seventeen years old and proud of the many opportunities to celebrate the art of theatre in our city… one of them being this heartfelt production of Les Misérables.