The Marionettes Chorale production of Les Misérables ended its run at Queen’s Hall last Sunday night to a deservedly standing ovation, in recognition of the superb handling of an outstanding theatrical property. It is outstanding, not so much because of the storyline of Victor Hugo’s novel about the struggle of the French post-revolutionary rebellious youth against the power structure, but because of the rich music that composer Claude-Michel Schonberg overlaid on Alain Boublil’s book based on that story.
As an audience member, I have been assisting at theatrical performances of Les Misérables for about a quarter of a century. It started with the original London run in the late eighties at the Palace Theatre, where I got the last available seat in the last row of the Gods, furthest from the action on the revolving stage. Needless to say, much of the merit of that production did not reach me.
It was many years later, when the 10th anniversary concert performance at the Royal Albert Hall was filmed, that I came to the realization that I was very privileged to have been present at the 1987 West End performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was not at The Royal Albert Hall, but I acquired a VHS tape of the event, which I was able to view over and over to marvel at the amazingly high standards set by the cream of the international crop – The Brits, Colm Wilkinson (Valjean) and Alun Armstrong (Thenardier), the Australian, Philip Quast (Javert), and the American, Michael Macguire (Enjolras).
So when I went to see the Broadway revival earlier this year, I was prepared to enjoy and to criticize. There were no big names in that production, but none were needed. A little known Canadian understudy played Valjean that night and he brought home his performance by nailing Bring Him Home. He and the rest of the cast were totally on top of the material, passing the acid test with their rendition of One Day More, which made my gray hair stand on end.
Composer Schonberg has confessed that One Day More presented him with the greatest challenge in writing the score, for he had to work all the signature themes of the principal characters into one rousing holistic medley before the intermission. Could the Marionettes do justice to that piece? Yes they could and yes they did, thanks to their rich endowment of vocal talent. The only flaw was a physical one, the placement of the Thenardiers in the balcony, apart from the rest of the company, and not on the stage as a part of the whole colour-blindedly cast ensemble.
The acting ability and vocal quality of the principals, all with day jobs, matched the quality of the professionals in the West End and on Broadway. Marlon de Bique (Valjean), Marvin Smith (Javert), and Aurora Tardieu (Eponine) gave us memorable renditions of Who Am I, Stars and On My Own. Marvin Smith stole the show, giving us also a treat of Javert’s Suicide. For that number, however, he was limited by the special effects and the set in convincing us that he had jumped to his death in turbulent waters.
Which is not to say that the set was at all sub-standard. I am used to the Marionettes performing concerts as a chorale, not as a full theatre company on a set. And for this production Randal Halfhide was pressed into service to provide a more than adequate set, no doubt following the guidelines insisted upon by Music Theatre International for performances of this precious property. Impressive special effects and smooth scene changes were facilitated by a theatrical space transformed tastefully in the 2000s by Colvin Chen from the open multi-purpose original put down by Colin Laird in the 50s.
Now that the Marionettes have at their disposal the well-credentialed Caroline Taylor, whose stage direction was right up there, they must do more and more full productions of musical theatre. Caroline’s mother, Gretta Taylor, the Musical Director, has not only brought the Marionettes and herself a very long way, and she is now a competent conductor of a neat little orchestra into which the steel pan has been seamlessly integrated.
I could not help thinking during the performance, that while young Frenchmen were dying in battle on the Queen’s Hall set, just across the hill in Laventille, young Trinis were dying in another kind of gunplay. One was art, the other was life as we have come to know it. We live in troubled violent times in our Republic but there is hope for us yet. Performing art can give us a lift and lessen the pain of everyday living. The Marionettes are doing much more than producing shows. By their getting together, in the midst of social despair, and mounting the kind of production that Les Misérables was, they are doing the sacred work of giving a people hope.
Thank you Marionettes, and thank you bpTT for putting oil and gas money to such noble purpose, as we listen out to hear our people sing again.
— A review by Eden Shand
18 July, 2014