Cameron Mackintosh’s English adaptation of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s Les Misérables has been a smashing hit ever since it first hit theatres in 1985. It has become a masterpiece of our time and ranks amongst the greatest musicals of all time smashing nearly all box office records. Les Miserables also holds the Guinness Book Of Records for most concurrent productions (15 at one time) than any other musical in history. With Les Miserables’ grand history, it is an understatement to suggest that the Sydney production of Les Mis had big shoes to fill.
Les Miserables is famous for its long story with many acts intertwined, so I won’t bore you with reciting the plot, as anybody remotely interested in this article surely knows somewhat of what the story is about. I will concentrate more on our experience as an audience and what sentiment we took away from this amazing night. Sitting in Sydney’s beautiful Capitol theatre with the orchestra warming up and tuning their instruments, we were all faced with an amazing stage set-up, eagerly anticipating the opening note of Les Mis. Without hesitation, conductor Geoffrey Castles waved his baton, and the orchestra started on cue with a huge wall of sound for Les Miserables’ opening scene. Let me tell you that after hearing the orchestra play the opening few bars, I was gob-smacked at the quality of the sound production. Powerful, clear, and just beautiful on the ear. The curtain was finally drawn and we were treated with an amazing backdrop which utilised both props and digital graphics, which set the scene beautifully for the powerful chorus of prisoners singing ‘Look Down’.
I was eagerly waiting to be introduced to our Jean Valjean for the night, and at first I was a little disappointed to learn that of all nights, lead cast Simon Gleeson was not to be our Jean Valjean. I had heard allot about the talented young Sydney cast, in particular Simon Gleeson’s amazing interpretation and vocal performance for the lead role of Jean Valjean. Our Jean Valjean for the night was understudy Daniel Belle, who some of you may remember as being on ‘Australian Idol’ way back in 2004. With the opening scene under way, Daniel Belle used great dynamics with his opening song of ‘Who Am I’. From a quiet whisper, to a huge roar, every word was understood. It was immediately apparent that Daniel Belle meant business, and had great command of his voice. Kudo’s to the sound production team, who were able to capture Daniel Belle’s vocals with such beauty and clarity, creating a beautiful mix with the orchestra allowing the audience to easily follow the dialogue. Daniel Belle was impressive with his opening song, and announced to the audience that he is the real deal and has come along way since his Australian Idol days. Any reservations that the audience may have had for not being greeted with Simon Gleeson as lead Jean Valjean immediately dissipated as the audience broke out with a huge roar of approval and applause during the closing of the first scene.
If there is one criticism I have for the Sydney production of Les Miserables, it is that each scene seems rushed and dealt with at a frenetic pace. At times, it leaves the audience floundering for an emotional connection to what should be an emotional scene. The introduction of each scene is done so at record speed too, which maintained the quick pace of the production. I was amazed at how such huge props could be integrated in each scene seamlessly. The props, costumes, lighting and backdrops were top notch, and unrivalled for any stage production I’ve ever seen. Each scene was set up in such a way that really made you feel like we were reliving the story of Jean Valjean, and witnessing his every moment. Even in the latter scenes which were set in the sewers of France, the use of lighting, dry ice mist, motion backdrop, and a more reverberant sound from the sound team actually made me think for a minute we were in a sewer…. only thing missing was the stench.
Jean Valjean’s nemesis Javert, played by the talented Hayden Tee was everything one can hope for in a villain. His deep baritone vocal tone, along with his disapproving stare and stance captured the part of Javert expertly. I must mention that Javert’s last scene of demise and suicide was one of the highlights of the night. With the audience anticipating how the scene of Javert jumping off a bridge would be played out, all I can say is that the stage craft creatives used a stroke of genius to capture Javert’s fall in a most artistic and glorious way. Trying to recount in words how this scene played out would be a disservice to how genius it was.
After Anne Hathaway’s ground breaking performance of Fantine in the 2012 movie production of Les Miserables, it is a tough task for any stage actor to live up to the expectations of this role. The diminutive Patrice Tipoki played Fantine, and did a great job. Her light soprano vocals were top notch, and her heart wrenching cries struck a chord. Tipoki even managed to pull off a note perfect rendition of ‘Come To Me’ laying in her death bed, however, the frenetic pace of the production didn’t do Fantine any favours, not allowing Patrice Tipoki to develop an emotional connection with the audience. Each of Fantine’s scenes were swiftly played out, and before we knew it, everyones favourite Les Mis song ‘I Dreamed A Dream’ was played without much fanfare or build up. Patrice Tipoki’s rendition was note perfect, however, the lack of build up preceding the song made such an emotionally driven scene we’ve come accustomed to seem somewhat lacklustre.
Madame Thenardier, and husband Thenardier were a welcome comedic change to the production. The fast paced style of the production suited this section to a tee. Lara Mulcahy and Trevor Ashley were outstanding and played their roles perfectly. Their vocal characterisation of their characters were spot on, and provided much entertainment and laughs. Cosette, played by Emily Langridge possessed a very light lyric coloratura type voice which was beautiful and skilfully manoeuvred between notes with ease. However, Emily Langridge seemed a little lacking in her stage presence, and lacked some flare to make us really notice Cosette, the beauty that captures and steals Marius’ heart. Cosette is somewhat overshadowed by Eponine played by understudy Chloe Zuel, who steals every scene both her and Cosette are in. Eun Doidge, who plays Cosette’s love interest Marius has great acting ability and is convincing in every scene. His vocals sound very youthful, but at times sound weak and can’t compete with the strong vocal ability of the cast.
The star of the show without a doubt was Daniel Belle in lead role of Jean Valjean, and for an understudy to make such an impression is amazing. It makes me ask how good Simon Gleeson can be if Daniel Belle is his understudy. Not only was Belle’s vocals stellar, his acting was top notch and I was amazed at the production teams ability in characterizing Belle as a young and older Valjean. His hair, beard and makeup looked very believable as each age passed and in his last scene, Valjean looked every part a dying old man. Never once did it make the audience question that a young man was dressed up in an old man’s attire.
Valjean’s swan song is ‘Bring Him Home’, and Daniel Belle didn’t fail to deliver a performance that can only be described as out of this world. Belle’s vocal range is phenomenal, and one would think it is somewhat between a tenor and a baritone, until you hear him produce the most beautiful head voice/falsetto. His vocals are very dynamic, with a beautiful unwavering thick quality, with his high notes maintaining that thickness and quality even when vocalising quietly. Belle’s diction is also top notch, with every word produced with clarity and purpose. Daniel Belle is a singer on top of his game and as good as anybody in the world of stage musicals. I am confident that this will be the start of an amazing career for Daniel Belle, and it surely won’t be the last we’ve heard of him.
The Sydney Production of Les Miserables had huge expectations and shoes to fill, and passed with flying colours. The sound quality was the best I have ever heard. Stage props, costumes and lighting are unrivalled and breathtaking. The cast is one of the strongest vocal casts you’ll find anywhere in the world. Seeing Daniel Belle as Jean Valjean is worth admission alone. If only the pace of the production was somewhat more relaxed, I would give this production a 10/10. For now, I will give Sydneys Capitol Theatre Les Miserables 9.5/10 and a must see for everybody.
To book tickets for Les Miserables, visit http://www.lesmis.com.au/sydney/booking-information/
Written by Darko Zoric
Principal of JumboNote Music School
Singer and Musician