Book: Alain Boubil & Claude-Michel Schönberg
Music: Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics: Herbert Kretzmer
Directors: Laurence Connor & James Powell
After being seen by over 120 million people and following countless tours and special performances, one could be forgiven for assuming there’s not much left to say about Les Misérables. However, within seconds of the opening of the new staging of the show, the Lowry audience is reminded of the power and accomplishment of Les Miz.
Jailed for 19 years for stealing bread (and a few other misdemeanours), Jean Valjean (Dean Chisnall) is reluctantly released by Javert (Nic Greenshields). He soon discovers in 1815 France it will be impossible to be known as anything other than Prisoner 24601.
At his lowest moment, Valjean is shown mercy and decides to break his parole to begin a new life. It’s a life shared with some of the most famous characters in musical theatre. His past keeps trying to catch up with him and Paris is thrown into revolution but Valjean continues to try and do right by those around him.
It might seem vulgar to begin a review by talking about money but the reality is the phenomenon of Les Misérables is partly due to the aim of giving every audience member the same incredible experience. Whether they’re in premium West End seats or stood at the back of an out of town theatre balcony. No expense has been spared. From Matt Kinley’s extraordinary set to the size and talent of the cast and orchestra.
After nearly four decades one would expect slick direction but the speed at which the stage is transformed from full to empty is genuinely breathtaking. Directors James Powell and Laurence Connor have ensured the three hour running time zips along. Plenty of other productions could take note.
The pre-interval set piece of One Day More is unsurprisingly awesome (even without that revolve) but Master of the House is even more accomplished. One could happily watch the scene several times over and see new moments each time. There is so much going on and it’s all truly glorious.
Production purists will be more than aware this Les Miz is different to the first touring version that premiered in Manchester in 1992. That’s no bad thing. Paule Constable’s fresh lighting design truly wows. At several moments, the lighting combines with the projections and then attention to detail in set, costumes and props to help create artistic images to live long in the memory.
Les Miz is more than a technical masterpiece. It’s a show of pure emotion chock full of numbers that, in the right hands, can ensure there’s not a dry eye in the house. It’s in the right hands here. The casting is spot on. Every performance is pitch perfect. Nathania Ong as Éponine deserves special mention. Ong inhabits the famous role but her vocal brings something fresh to the part that’s really standout.
As the lead, Chisnall is suitably astounding. Greenshields’s stage presence as Javert is extraordinary, while Ian Hughes and Helen Walsh are having great fun as the criminally lovable Thénardiers. It’s hard to believe this is Will Callan’s professional debut. His Marius delivers the boyish naivety audiences will recognise but also displays heartbreaking PTSD after the barricades are pulled down.
It could be a reflection of the times we’re living through but the painful reality of war really hits home. As Grantaire and Gavroche embrace, audiences can’t fail to be touched by the tragic waste of young men gunned down in their prime.
Perhaps that’s the enduring magic of Les Misérables. A timeless story and a near flawless musical but also a show that can be constantly refreshed and seen in new ways.
Runs until 23 April 2022