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Jon Jon Briones,
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Jean Valjean, Eponine, Fantine:
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Les Miserables is, quite simply, the finest musical ever made, and this special anniversary performance encapsulates exactly why.
It had been many years since I saw 'Les Mis' on stage in London, and other than listening to it on CD semi-regularly, I hadn't had much experience of the show until receiving the 25th anniversary concert on Blu-Ray. Prior to then, 'Phantom' was by a mile my favourite musical, with no others close. Les Miserables blows them all out of the water.
The story is simple enough. A paroled man tries to rebuild his life with adopted daughter Cosette, against the backdrop of student rebellions in France. Meanwhile Marius, one of the students, and Cosette fall in love. Yet the plot is little more than something to drape the music around, and for that it serves its purpose admirably, giving depth, context and emotion to the magnificent music. Much has been written about the plot's simplicity, which needs little more than a couple of captions and video clips to drive it on, and the similarly simple staging also needs little analysis. Both serve to focus all attention on the music, adding to the raw power of the show.
The music ranges from the comedic (Master of the House) to the tragic (On My Own) to the operatic (Bring Him Home) and the simply spine-tingling (One Day More). No other musical has the power to raise hairs and bring goosebumps throughout, and at the same time bring entire audiences to tears – look out during the standing ovation (one of many) towards the end for a lady with mascara streaming down her face from tears, demonstrating the emotional power of the music. In any other musical, ask fans to name their favourite song, and they will usually all pick from the same few. But with Les Miserables, fans would be hard-pressed to limit their choices to a top 10, with 'I Dreamed a Dream', 'Stars', 'Do You Hear The People Sing', 'One Day More', 'On My Own', 'Bring Him Home' and 'Empty Chairs' not even half the regular list of favourites! The casting is near-perfect. Having seen much of the original cast in the 10th anniversary production way back in my school days, and all but worn out the CD of the original cast recording, I never thought anybody could surpass Colm Wilkinson's definitive performance as the hero Valjean. Yet Alfie Boe does that superbly. His vocal range and emotion invested into the music equals that of his legendary predecessor, but he is also able to bring a power and resonance that gives operatic scale and strength to his performance. His dramatic renditions of solos such as 'What Have I Done?' and 'Who Am I?' are spine-chilling, thanks to the strength with which he is able to hit and hold the big notes, while his 'Bring Him Home' is quite simply awesome. Yet he is not alone. Norm Lewis's Javert is virtually his equal in emotional range, and Ramin Karimloo as Enjolras and Katie Hall as Cosette are also excellent. Matt Lucas, in a slightly leftfield casting choice, is surprisingly entertaining as the roguish Thernadier. While never claiming to be a first-rate singer, Lucas makes up for this by enjoying what obviously is a long leash given to him to put his own spin on the character, really hamming up the comical villainy and providing some genuine hilarity amongst all the weepies. Special mention must be made of the performance of Samantha Barks as the feisty Eponine. While Frances Ruffelle was excellent as the original, Samantha Barks sets a new benchmark, bringing a genuine heart-wrenching pitiable quality, leading audiences to virtually want to beat Marius over the head for not seeing her true feelings, and her haunting solo in one of the show's signature songs – On My Own – becomes a real tear-jerker.
Which brings us to Marius. The casting of Nick Jonas, of Jonas Brothers fame, is little more than a casting publicity stunt, and one which almost backfires catastrophically. Quite simply, Jonas is leagues out of his depth, and his voice has not the power nor range to do justice to the role, and he comes across as a typical boy band singer, and a barely adequate one at that. His voice seems small and tinny next to the emotion of Barks or the raw power of Boe. Even his facial expressions come straight from Backstreet Boys 101! He is clearly there as a blatant stunt to draw in younger fans who would buy this just on seeing his name in the cast, a move which comes across as cynical and could cost the performance a star on its own. To be fair to Jonas however, by the time Marius's signature number of 'Empty Chairs at Empty Tables' arrives, he seems to have grown into the part somewhat and sings it reasonably well. Yet when Michael Ball comes onstage for the encore with the rest of the original cast to belt out 'One Day More', you cannot help but feel 'now that is how it should be done!' But even Jonas' potentially disastrous performance cannot prevent this spectacular production of the world's longest running musical from achieving full marks. The music is out of this world, the singing is almost universally phenomenal and the setting of the O2 is suitably grand. It is impossible to fully articulate the raw power of the emotions stirred by the spectacular songs of Les Miserables, but I defy anybody not to be moved to near tears, left breathless and feel a chill throughout the show, and if you are not moved, then you are either lying or dead inside, particularly given the extra treat of seeing the original cast reunite for 'One Day More' and the four Valjeans singing 'Bring Him Home' – a wonderful bonus.
Many musicals encompass a range of emotions, but none run the whole gamut with quite the same power as Les Miserables. Awe-inspiring. Perfect.
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