In February 2013, Prince of Wales Collegiate mounted an exuberant and very creditable production of the stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s hugely popular, five-volume novel, “Les Miserables.”
A year later, the musical blockbuster has returned to the St. John’s Arts and Culture main stage, produced by the newly formed Atlantic Light Theatre company. Since this review constitutes my second bite of the cherry, forgive me if there is a hint of deja vu.
“Les Mis” is in every respect a big, insistent, operatic musical, full of passion and compassion.
Set in early 19th century France, principally in its capital city, the pullulating streets of Paris are populated by colorful and disreputable characters, by street urchins and thieves, by beggars and prostitutes, and by soldiers and sailors on the prowl.
The play centres on a recently released convict, Jean Valjean (Jonathan Monro), who was jailed for 19 years for stealing bread for his hungry family, the length of his cruel sentence being increased for repeated attempts to escape.
Dogged by a determined, vengeful and sanctimonious policeman (Calvin Powell), he links up with an enchanting, homeless waif named Cosette (Megan Moret and Sarah Loveys for younger and older), in due course becoming a fondly affectionate father-patron, a beacon of decency in an all-too-often sordid and mercenary society.
But there is no escaping the obstinate and vindictive Chief Inspector Javert, who is not even to be obstructed by revolutionary Parisian students mounting the barricades.
This brief synopsis is the merest fraction of the long and sprawling narrative of a big, bombastic and multi-faceted story.
With a challenging score for through-song performance, “Les Miserable” is more populist opera than musical theatre.
Melodramatic and maudlin, it may be, but it is also a spectacular and stirring piece, with fine sets (designer Shelley Cornick) and period costumes, and with some striking dramatic roles — a combination of attributes that naturally trigger end-of-show standing ovations.
This production is visually and acoustically evocative — and sometimes piercingly, hauntingly beautiful. It has its longeurs, though, caused by slow and deliberate development.
This is inherent in the script, I believe. The long first act goes on for 100 minutes. The second act is shorter, coming in at around an hour. But, with the exception of the occupation and storming of the citizen-held barricades, I found my interest flagging in the over-emotive and somewhat preachy second act, which seemed to resist and to keep deferring closure.
But it got there finally with the sprightly "Wedding Chorale," shortly to be followed by the full-voiced, full-company finale.
Acting and singing is of high quality at all levels in this show, by turns stirring and sentimental, with voices amplified by high-quality equipment (flawlessly monitored by wireless technician Randy Feener).
All of the musical numbers in the show are agreeable, with some being particularly noteworthy: for my money, Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” (Kiersten Noel), the comic “Master of the House” sung by the grotesque tavern keeper (Peter Halley, going down-market) with his money-grubbing wife (Shelley Neville), and Cosette’s “Castle on a Cloud.”
Directed by Jacinta Mackey Graham, with musical direction by Douglas Vaughan (no small feats these two functions), the Atlantic Light Theatre large-cast (50 or so on-stage) production of “Les Miserables” continues until Sunday in the Arts and Culture Centre, with the curtain time of 7:30 p.m. and with an additional 1:30 p.m. matinee on closing day.
Running time, including intermission, is 15 minutes over three hours. So don’t count on being home before 11 p.m.
Thursday’s opening night was sufficiently heavily subscribed that I was assigned a balcony seat for the first time in decades. And I rather enjoyed being up in the gods again.