Les Misérables - Albatross Musical Theatre Company, Nowra (NSW)
Reviewed by Justin Clarke
For any company to tackle the behemoth that is Boublil and Schönberg's Les Misérables, their tenacity and daring should be welcomed. The show itself is a masterpiece that has been running in London's West End for the past 33 years. The fact that it still to this day has the audience appeal amongst professional and community productions is a testament to the operetta itself. The only catch is, with its mass audience appeal and its fine age, there are certain things audiences have come to expect from a production of Les Misérables. So how did Albratross Musical Theatre Company do in this regard?
Opening with the iconic image of Les Misérables projected onto the stage and the colours of the French flag lit in an arc surrounding the orchestra, it was clear that this production was not one that was undertaken lightly. Director Suzi Villeneuve-Smith has dove into this production head on with passion and her own bits of flare to what could have just been another generic production of the long-running musical.
Opting to perform in a minimalist staging, Villeneuve-Smith carefully chose which set pieces and musical numbers were needed to fit the "iconic" status of the show. The revolving barricades, Thénardier's inn and the setting of Cosette and Marius' wedding were all staged and decorated perfectly to satiate the hunger of Les Misérables aficionados in the audience. Although at times the vastness of the stage sometimes hindered the production as the solo characters became isolated and the numbers repetitive as the show went on. In saying this, during the large ensemble numbers, the stage came to life through the peppering of cast across the Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre's large space.
Whilst acting on the 'must-haves' of the production, Villeneuve-Smith decided to also add her own little touches to the performance. The relationship between Cosette and Eponine was played upon in a way I'd never seen done in past productions, choosing to show the obvious friendship between the two as children, rather than enemies of a different class.
The motif of Fontine's locket which she pawns for money during Lovely Ladies was chosen as a recurring motif that was played on through the gifting of the locket to other characters in the show; it was also a clever prop used as a way of avoiding that creepy 'strange man approaching a young girl in a forest' debacle I've always thought when watching Jean Valjean approach young Cosette in the woods before adopting her.
As for Valjean himself, Nathan Lomas was the perfect fit vocally for the iconic character. During Bring Him Home I closed my eyes for a second to just listen to his voice and I could have sworn I was listening to a young Colm Wilkinson. Lomas sung his way through every number of Valjean's with perfection. For community theatre, Valjean (if cast incorrectly) can make this long musical more tedious, thankfully, Lomas pulled the production through to the very last note. Lomas perhaps could have benefited from being less stoic in his movements, especially when it came to Valjean aging. This would have made his death more of an impact for the audience. Being such a young performer with such a talented voice, he can only go up hill from here and is a name to look out for.
The antagonist of the musical and Valjean's opponent, the formidable Javert was played by the talented James Ebdon. It was clear that Ebdon studied the performance of Javert closely as it was difficult to distinguish his mannerisms of Javert from those I've seen professionally in other productions. His performance of Stars was sublime and a pleasure to listen to. Jane McIntosh as the tragic Fantine chewed up every scene she was in. Her rendition of I Dreamed a Dream was pitched perfectly and worked to help begin Fantine's demise throughout Act One. Again, McIntosh could have benefited from embodying Fantine's slowly decaying body as her death scene felt sudden. Had I not known the show, I wouldn't have known she was sick. Upon her return to the stage at the end of the show, McIntosh's presence added a harmonic nature to the death of Valjean. A rare thing to find in an actor.
Briannah Gorden as Cosette knew the ins and outs of her character and played Cosette to the best that the character is written. Gorden's voice matched Cosette well and made for some lovely harmonies with Lachie Mill's Marius. As Marius, Mills presented a character that was more driven by his love for Cosette, rather than his devotion to the French Rebellion. Whether this was a clear actor or director's choice was not clear, but I liked it nonetheless.
Singing what is one of my favourite numbers in the show - On My Own - Isabelle Spinelli was perfectly cast as Eponine, the OG friend-zoned character. Spinelli sung On My Own with, dare I say it, a bit of a modern twist to her notes. If this was her own choice or one from the Musical Director, then I am impressed because it made the song stand out from others I have heard.
Other quick mentions go to the Thénardier's - Lloyd McDonald and Kate Beavan-Morris - who played the dastardly duo well. I would have liked to have seen more comedy from McDonald's Thénardier, however he played the villainy well in Dog Eats Dog. Scott Bowcher fitted the role of Enjolras and his fist raising, rallying stances were clearly suited to the role given to him. Lucas McDonald as Gavroche was a crowd pleaser and his death scene was uniquely performed and staged by the director and one that tugged on the heartstrings.
Whilst acting on the 'must-haves' of the production, Villeneuve-Smith has decided to also add her own little touches to the performance.
The orchestration, led by Musical Director Merrin Ross, never overpowered the actors and the vocal scores and instruments worked well together to produce some pleasing harmonies throughout the numbers. I only felt at times that the orchestra could have been more powerful for the audience's sake. For instance, the opening notes of the show should send goosebumps into the audience and get us ready for the production, but sadly this was not often achieved throughout the show.
Stage Manager, Laura Turner, seamlessly worked the sets on and off with ease, there were rarely times when I saw them stumble or cause delays during the changes of the scenes. However I would say something that was detrimental to the show was seeing the crew enter on and off the stage, as well as the cast coming on and off during certain numbers. Shifting the curtains at the back wall ever so slightly would have eradicated this issue altogether.
A special mention must go out to Matt Mackenzie's lighting design. Due to the minimalist approach the show undertook, the lighting design was crucial for the show to succeed and the result was, at times, stunning. Another mention must also go to the ensemble of the production. It was clear that the cast were loving every minute of the show and used every minute on stage to their advantage. My only note that would go to all the cast would be to look up more as I felt the whole audience were sometimes not played to.
In all, AMTC should be applauded for their tenacity and skill in bringing together an entertaining production of Les Miserables and one that will please newcomers to the musical as well as those who are Les Miserables roadies.
Well done to all involved and here's to one day more of shows before you close your season.
Les Miserables played at the Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre until the 24th November 2018.