LES Miserables is truly a phenomenon – no other musical has run for as long in London, since 1985, or been revived so soon (twice) on Broadway, and with a school edition available since 2001 and the film version hitting screens a few years ago even more people have seen this show.
This week it is the turn of the good people of Frome to have this phenomenon visit the Merlin Theatre, courtesy of their resident Tri.Art Theatre School, in the School Edition, which I first saw in 2002, having seen the West End show many times, on tour, and in four countries. The cast at Frome are very competent, with good singing and acting skills, and while it would be unfair to single out too many of what is a great ensemble, the Thenardiers, played by Fin Collinson and Anna Lee filled their roles very well, with good comic timing, precise delivery, and a lovely, believable, if a little strained at times, relationship. These are two of the most accessible roles in the show, but it can be too easy to overplay them, so credit is due to these two young actors. The big solo songs all came across well, with my favourite being I Dreamed a Dream, during which Astrid Bishop as Fantine acted her grubby socks off, with strong emotion, cutting long notes short, rather as Anne Hathaway does in the film. Patrick Withey was strong and imposing as Valjean, whose story this is, and his voice had a good adaptability for the stronger songs, as well as the quieter prayer Bring Him Home. George Tucker’s Javert was serious and brooding, and he imploded well as he realised that fate was not on his side. It is a pity the School Edition only allows him one verse of Stars, but that one verse was performed with aplomb. Marius and Eponine, Oliver Edwards and Emma Golay tonight, also sang their well-known numbers with gusto and reality, imbuing both of them, Empty Chairs and On My Own, with just the right level of sadness. When singing with Cosette as well, in the garden, these three voices were sweet, accurate, and a delight to hear, and as Cosette Emma Aspray’s voice was clear and precise. Special mention must also go to Gavroche and young Cosette, Joely Hudson and Abi Sparrow respectively, who are always loved by audiences, but who also have to be every bit as good as the rest, and tonight they were, with audible shock in the audience when Gavroche meets his untimely end.
The great thing about the School Edition is that the director is not limited by professional cost, so that the ensemble can be much bigger than in the professional version, and this Theatre School used all of their acting skills to give some wonderful ensemble work, from the men pulling the rope on the chain gang at the beginning, through the Lovely Ladies working the docks, to the large finales of each act, all playing individuals, but working together, and relishing that now-famous Les Mis rocking step – forward, centre, behind, centre, through Do You Hear the People Sing and One Day More. This ensemble should be proud of their detail work, as well as the big production numbers.
It is all too easy these days to buy or produce a recorded backing track, so it was another bonus to have a live band for this show, with a couple of glitches on the first night, but generally giving good support, and some beautiful solo playing of the counter melodies on woodwind and brass.
This was a good production of a very difficult show, and anyone seeing it for the first time would be amazed at the level of talent involved. Tri.Arts should be very proud of their company, and this production.