Les Miserables

Schonell Theatre (Ignatians Musical Society)


By Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg

Community Theatre production

Why do theatre companies love putting on productions of musicals? Once upon a time cynics would say that the formula went:

“Musicals = big casts = hordes of proud rellies and curious friends = lots of bums on seats = (providing you can keep your set and costume designer on a leash) a PROFIT. As a bonus, Musicals are often Fun To Do, so even the most reluctant performer can be persuaded into the chorus to Have a Go.”

None of which was necessarily encouraging for the average member of the ticket-buying public (i.e. those unrelated to cast, chorus, orchestra, dancers or large production team).

Nowadays in Brisbane much of that has changed. Auditions for musicals put on by well-respected companies like Ignatians attract such large numbers of talented (and often very experienced) performers that directors are spoiled for choice and can even as is the case with this production of Les Miserables arrange for some lead roles to be shared. Added to this, there are more and more drama and musical theatre schools turning out promising young performers so that the talent pool is constantly being replenished. All of which is good news for the paying public.

However, a demanding production such as Les Miserables needs more than raw talent to make it work. Good set, lighting, and costume design well executed are obvious requirements, but so too is an experienced and well-organised production team led by an imaginative director. In all of these areas this production more than meets expectations.

Ignatians has a long history of bringing musical theatre to Brisbane audiences and has developed a lot of expertise along the way. In Simone de Haas it has found a director with the ability to extract a professional level of performance from all involved. In my experience, productions of this musical divide into two categories very good or painful. This show looks very good, sounds very good and has a polish not always found in community theatre productions. There were one or two false starts, due no doubt to first-night nerves, but these were almost unnoticeable and are unlikely to recur.

The orchestra, which is sizeable, contributes a great deal to the professional feel of this show. The conductor has a difficult and often thankless task in a musical; required to keep vocal and orchestral time and do justice to the score without drowning out the singers. All this Harmony Lentz manages commendably.

For the audience, the experience is enhanced enormously by the venue, the Schonell Theatre. What a pleasure to see this lovely little theatre used for the purpose for which it was designed and built live theatre. With a deep stage and good flying and wing space available, the designer was able to drop in gauzes and borders, backlight projections and accommodate bulky set items and a large chorus without noticeable problems. (Beats working in a church hall any day!)

By now everyone knows the big production numbers from Les Miserables, so audience expectations of the “Lovely Ladies, Master of the House” and the “Building the Barricades” scenes, for example, are very high. There are no disappointments here, with Michael Corcoran (Thenardier ) showing great comic flair, backed up by Sara Reynold-Sly as his wife, leading an enthusiastically noisy and bawdy chorus. The chorus work throughout was good, with both men’s and women’s numbers sung both tunefully and dramatically. Shane Anderson (Gavroche on opening night) deserves special mention for an exceptionally assured performance from so young a singer.

The female leads, Alice Barbery (Fantine), Louise Gavin (Cosette on opening night), Kirsten Hobbes (Eponine on opening night), and Chloe Einicke (Little Cosette on opening night), have lovely voices and, almost as important, look good; as do the young male leads Simon Schmidt (Marius) and Jeff Teale (Enjolras)

. Ultimately Les Miserables stands or falls, however, on how the singers playing the two “heavies”, Valjean and Javert, stand up to the challenge of their roles. Christopher Thomas brings a powerful, clear, authoritative voice to the part of Javert. In the tricky fight duet with Valjean he is able to hold his own in the confrontation and is convincingly disturbed and moving in the suicide scene.

The role of Valjean makes great demands on a singer, requiring a big vocal range, fine acting skills and considerable physical strength. Jack Bradford meets the challenges all round. His size gives him a commanding presence and allows him to manhandle the not-inconsiderable weight of Marius around the stage, while, as an actor, he is able to portray the essential purity and simplicity of Valjean. Though his voice struggles a little at times in the lower register, his lyrical light tenor voice is totally at home in the demanding “Bring Him Home” and its beautiful reprise at Valjean’s death. The actor is able to make both particularly affecting.

It was very appropriate that the first night for this show was 14th July when the French celebrate the bravery of militants and the storming of the Bastille. However, it was painfully ironic that this was also the day when we read in the newspapers of the four young men in England who had left their families and friends one morning to give their lives in a cause they too believed was just bringing death to scores and misery to hundreds. I could not have been the only member of the audience that night finding the Barricades scene almost unbearable to watch, with its depiction of shattered bodies and wasted young lives. As the chorus of the oppressed remind us near the end of the show “Nothing ever changes”.

Directed by Simone de Haas

Playing until 6 August 2005: Evenings 7.30 pm, Saturday matinees 16, 23, 30 July, 6 August 1.30 pm, matinee Sunday 31 July 5pm

Running time including 20 minute interval: 3 hrs

— Maureen Strugnell
(Performance seen: Wed 13th July 2005)