Photo by Matthew Murphy
Palace Theatre, Manchester
Until Saturday 30th March 2019
It was back in December 2009 that Cameron Mackintosh first divided the passionate Les Mis fandom with the launch of his brand new 25th Anniversary touring production at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. Despite giving the landmark musical a fresh new look for the 21st Century, the revised, streamlined production made significant changes to the direction, the set and the classic designs, omitting a number of much-loved aspects of the long-running original production that didn’t sit well with many.
Nearly a decade on, Mackintosh’s ‘new’ production of Boublil and Schönberg’s towering epic – co-directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell – is back on the road again for a mammoth (and virtually sold-out) UK and Ireland tour, but despite some interesting touches, and some strong performances, it is a production that too often feels like a diluted version of the full show, often lacking the emotional impact and heavyweight bulk of the full scale, Trevor Nunn and John Caird directed original.
There is an undeniably youthful energy to it, and the modern theatrical technologies and animated back projections introduced can be used to great effect (notably in the sewer sequences), but the removal of some of the larger set designs and backdrops reduces the overall scale and impact, with the absence of the show’s famous revolving stage giving things a much more static feel.
There is however some beautiful design work on display, and Matt Kinley treats us to a range of evocative, painterly scenic designs – all inspired by the artworks of Les Misérables creator Victor Hugo – which combine very well with Paule Constable’s atmospheric lighting designs (bathing the stage in warming, ‘magic hour’ golden hues and contrasting cold, melancholic blues and greys) to create a range of haunting and visually arresting tableaus; a spot-lit Marius blowing out his candle at the end of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables is just one memorable example.
Vocally the performances tend to be fairly solid across the board, though there are some issues with pitching from time to time and a number of performers do unfortunately find themselves having to shout rather uncomfortably to reach many of the top notes. That said, however, this production is without doubt at its most powerful in the big ensemble numbers, and it is those special, hair-raising moments that really bring the show to life.
Under the baton of conductor Ben Atkinson, the 14-strong orchestra deliver a sumptuous rendition of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s spellbinding score, even if Atkinson does like to take things at a rather brisk pace on occasion.
The new production will not be to every fan’s taste, and some of the changes to the production (including bizarre alterations in the dialogue and orchestrations) are a little puzzling, but at the end of the day (no pun intended) it is still Les Misérables, and if this is your first time experiencing musical theatre’s greatest masterpiece live on stage, you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Running Time: 3 hours (approx.), including one 15-minute interval.
Final Performance at the Palace Theatre, Manchester: Saturday 30th March 2019.
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