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THEATRE: 1 APRIL 2015

By SANDRA BOWDEN

Les Misérables, by Alain Boublil & Claude-Michel Schonberg | Produced by Cameron Mackintosh | Directed by Laurence Connor

Capitol Theatre, Sydney

Full disclosure to begin: I am a shameless Les Misérables tragic. From the first notes of the overture, sitting as a gobsmacked 20-something in 1988, I have been obsessed with this most glorious of musicals. I’ve lost count of how many times and in how many locations I’ve seen the tale of Jean Valjean. I keep telling myself one day I’ll watch it to the end without sobbing.

Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the world, estimated to have been seen by 65 million people. It shows no sign of slowing down as a new generation — and many of us who have followed the barricade for decades — get to experience this epic show. Finally arriving in Sydney after starting the Australian run in Melbourne and then Perth, the Sydney version sees a cohesive cast pretty much blow the roof off the Capitol.

When I first heard that Mackintosh’s revamped production takes away the famous revolving stage that made Trevor Nunn’s original version stand out from any other musical at the time, I felt some disappointment. How could the sense of movement and smooth transition of scenes be managed?

As it turns out, it is managed exceptionally well — and after the initial mental adjustments required for the diehard fan, it was wonderful to experience this production with new eyes. In fact, if this had simply been a return to the same staging, it would have been less satisfying. Add in a re-orchestrated score, video projections, animation, precision lighting and some nifty sound effects and this truly is “Les Misérables for the 21st Century”.

While I adjusted quickly to the staging changes, I found it more difficult to adapt to the increased tempo, particularly at the start of both Acts. While it certainly keeps the action rolling, the vocal gymnastics required for some of the lyrics only just made it at times. Perhaps that was why there also seemed an increased amount of speak-singing, where some lines dropped the melody — or perhaps this is a by-product of Tom Hooper’s 2012 film version.

Where it counts most, however, the pace is slowed to allow those blockbuster numbers the time needed to really hit. The trajectory of Simon Gleeson’s Valjean from desperate ex-convict to noble gentleman is superb, his rendition of Bring Him Home probably the best I’ve seen. Patrice Tipoki’s wretched Fantine pulls at the heartstrings, and adds a gritty realism to her dying moments.

Hayden Tee as the driven lawman Javert is a worthy match for Valjean, and their face-offs resonate with power. Tee’s Stars was truly spine-tingling.

Another gasp-worthy moment was Eponine’s (Kerrie Anne Greenland) On My Own: Greenland’s astonishing voice building a simple, heartfelt tune to a crescendo that earned the longest applause of the evening. Poor Cosette (Emily Langridge) had to contend with the speedier tempo on some incredibly complex melody lines, but when allowed her opportunity to slow it down rang pure as a bell. The final harmony in Cosette’s, Eponine’s and Marius’s (Euan Doidge) A Heart Full of Love is still one of the most beautiful sounds I know.

When the revolutionary action kicks in, Enjolras (Chris Durling) fills the stage with idealistic fervour, ably supported by a fine crew of rebels.

While on any night you can’t be sure which child actors will be featuring, the young Cosette, Eponine and Gavroche on opening night were brilliant.

Providing necessary comic relief, the innkeeper and his wife, the incorrigible Thernadiers (Trevor Ashley and Lara Mulcahy) work the stage — and their fellow performers — to perfection.

So yes, I am unapologetically biased about Les Misérables as a production. This latest version is exceptional. I didn’t get to the end without sobbing. I’m going again in a few weeks, and fully expect to sob again. At the end of the day, it’s worth it.