Les Miserables: School Edition
|Date||29th October 2015|
|Society||Devizes Musical Theatre|
|Venue||St Mary's Church, Devizes|
|Type of Production||Musical|
|Director||Lucy Kibby / Simon Hoy|
|Musical Director||Naomi Ibbetson|
Author: Matthew Heaton
Les Miserables is a musical that really needs no introduction. Alain Boublill and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical take on Victor Hugo’s classic novel is one of the best-loved and most familiar musicals of the modern age (so no pressure then!). To perform the School Edition, it does need to be performed entirely by students (aged 19 and under), but it doesn’t hold back on the original storyline for a younger cast. This does present a challenge in terms of some of the show’s content. It is a shorter production (some 23 minutes I have been told) but this is through removing some verses of songs rather than whole scenes. Thus the challenge is the same as for the full production, in terms of staging, performance and expectation.
I do know the show pretty well as I directed it myself a few years ago. This is useful because it gets me some insights into the issues and challenges with this show. To negate any preconceptions that I also may have and to get a younger person’s view on a youth production, I did bring my son of 13 years old to help contribute to the report.
As a result, I know it is quite an undertaking to put this show on at all. It is very challenging musically and is ‘opera-like’, as the whole show is sung. The score is also pretty relentless and has to be done at pace, which makes staging the show all the more challenging. On top of this, DMT Footlights have done this in a venue, a church, not really designed for theatre. They have had to bring in their own staging, sound and lighting. There is no pit or defined location for an orchestra, no wings to the stage and then no real facilities for looking after cast and audience. So, as an opening remark, very well done in overcoming all of these issues and putting on a great production.
If we start with the staging, the main acting area was a raised platform at the front of the church, vital with an audience all at floor level to enable them to see. As well as being a raised platform, the central section of this stage also revolved (quite a surprise as this effect wasn’t presented immediately), which was a really impressive achievement and it worked really well. This was vital as there is no scene change music as the production flows completely from scene to scene, so the next scene often has to set in parallel to the current one, without disturbing it. In fact, you probably could have made more use of the revolving stage – it was only used once for ‘walking’ in ‘Master of the House’ and would have helped the effect of the opening scene further for example. However, there may well have been a technical reason for this – it must have been quite a feat to get it moving!
With no wings, the stage entrances mainly used were two points of rear entry for the cast as well as the set. This did seem awkward at times when there were queues of people trying to get off after big scenes and the audience could sometimes see people waiting to come on at some scene changes (particularly when the bed was removed). A side aisle entry point was also used quite effectively, which seemed to have access to backstage, as was the back of the Church. I don’t know if these could have been used more to address some of the other issues. The cross-pew area of the floor was also used during ‘Turning’. I certainly felt part of this as my seat was under one corner of the sheet!
The balcony above the back of the stage was great. It worked well at the start of the show during the Chain Gang scene, allowing Javert to stand imposing above the convicts. It also worked well in ‘One Day More’ and in the Wedding Scene. It was pretty evident would be used as the Bridge for Javert’s suicide, though it probably needed the lighting to be cut to make his fall completely effective. Perhaps more could be made of steps at front to make a different level for some scenes. On occasion, I feel there was the need for some more set dressing. ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ probably needed a few more to support the song’s meaning and the Garden Scenes needed something to show who was outside and inside of the garden. The barricade worked very well, particularly when it was rotated. Its entrance and exit could have been masked a little with the student’s preparations before and Valjean carrying Marius afterwards.
The principal performances in the production were very strong. For child protection requirements I am unable to list names, so I’ve just used initials. It was a lovely idea to double up some of the principal roles so some performed on different nights.
Valjean (LE). This is a really difficult part for a young actor, but this was sung very well. ‘Bring Him Home’ was a real highlight of the whole performance. Well done.
Javert (HS). This performance was well controlled and the imposing character came through. The rendition of ‘Stars’ in particular was one of the spine-tingling moments in the show.
Marius (EC). There was a real confidence in the acting for this role. The singing performance in ‘Empty Chairs’ was excellent, with some real emotion at the end. The performer did seem nervous about their vocal range for some of the other numbers and dropping to their lower register, which unfortunately then seemed to affect their singing confidence a little, without good reason from what I heard overall.
Enjorlas (BK). A difficult part and sang well and with a great voice.
Thenardier (LP). Acted the part with great strength, effort and energy, with some very funny ad-libs too. Had a very good singing voice as-well, which enhanced the part.
Mme Thenardier (NB). Acted well and made a good partnership with Thenardier, though I did feel was slightly in his shadow at times. I don’t quite know what was the matter with your dress in the Wedding Scene, but you carried on bravely.
Fantine (SC). This part was also beautifully sung. ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ was performed with both passion and strength.
Eponine (LD). A strong acting performance and another fabulous soloist. ‘On my Own’ was another show-stopping moment.
Cosette (S O’D). An excellent performance overall, pitching this tricky part just right and a beautiful singing voice.
Little Cosette (BB). Performed the role very nicely. ‘Castle on a Cloud’ was very sweet.
Gavroche (RB). Sang and performed this part very well.
From these principal notes it will be no surprise for me to say that the music was the driving force behind the show. It was very impressive. The band was situated stage left of the performance area and the acoustics of the church really came into their own here, as they made a fantastic sound. It is a difficult score and the Society were wise to invest in a set of experienced and capable musicians. Well done all, and particularly to Musical Director Naomi Ibbeston, who managed to lead it all and play her Keyboard 3 part. Her raised position and a video link to the set meant that when there were issues, they were quickly recovered. After all of her efforts, I do have to say that she really shouldn’t have had to make her own tea in the interval!
The Chorus singing was of a good quality too – very well done. With a fully sung show, the music is the priority to start with and was time extremely well-spent. There was also some really nice chorus stagings. I liked the originality of the setting of ‘Lovely Ladies’, which overcame some of the awkwardness of the scene, whilst still creating an impact. The Death Scene on the Barricade for the Students was impressively set and carried out. The symbolism of the lights placed and removed for ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’ was also a very nice touch too.
On the technical side, the challenge of the lighting was evident, with the need to bring in a whole front bar and sidelights. This of course limited lighting options, but it was generally well-cued and atmospheric, with some nice colouring. A couple of the moving head lights didn’t move to their new position in-between cues and so were a little distracting when they came on. I did like the use of the sidelights in the barricade attack scene to enhance the effect and the switch of colour to more of a red colour when Valjean pretends to shoot Javert was great. It would have been nice to have been able to take the lighting down further for some of the exits and to make the spots tighter for some of the more intimate scenes and solo numbers, to assist with audience focus and atmosphere. Finally, really well done to the whole cast for carrying on regardless of the lighting issues in Act 2, and also to the Director Lucy Kibby for taking charge and having to stop and restart it.
Sound is always going to be difficult in such a venue, and a set of stage pick-up microphones and radio microphones for those with solos were used. Well done for control of the main principals and balance with the chorus and the band overall was very good. There were some drops outs and squeaks at times, particularly when some of the secondary principals were in-place (such as Thenardier’s Gang and the Students for example) but overall this was done well.
Costuming this show is on an epic scale. In general they were very good and in keeping with the period chosen. It is never easy to ‘dirty-up’ something that you are hiring! Mme Thenardier’s Dress in Act 2 did seem to hampered her, which was a shame and Eponine did probably need more of a disguise than a small hat to pass as a boy. The Thenardiers did seem to have the same costumes through all of Act 1, though their scenes are set some 9 years apart.
Hair and make-up were generally very good. Valjean’s aging effect developed well in Act 2. A few hairstyles were a little ‘modern’, though this is something not always easy to control. Fantine did seem to have a problem with her hair arrangement in the bed scene. With properties, where these were used these were in keeping with the period. Sometimes they were a little lacking. For example, you probably needed a few more Sillver items for Valjean and then the Thenardiers to steal. Gavroche also needed to be throwing back real ammunition pouches to help the audience understand what he was risking his life to do.
It is evident that the production team has put so much into this show, for which they are all to be congratulated. One request I do have is to please not to forget the story telling with this type of show. Though it is very well-known and it is all-sung, you still need to get the meaning from all the lyrics used – probably more than a traditional musical with lyrics and libretto. For example, to have Gavroche to explain physically who the characters are in his first scene as well as just singing about them would have helped the audience to understand better who they were. Thenardier’s gang scene was a little lost as they were not present as a gang in the earlier scene and with the Court Room scene in Act 1 cut, it then wasn’t clear how Javert knew who Valjean really was afterwards. I hope this doesn’t seem too picky, but an audience does need to be presented with a production as if they’ve never seen it before.
Please also never be afraid with young cast to really go for the drama. Les Miserables is an emotional show and I felt on occasion that there needed to be a little more in the Chorus scenes. Gavroche’s death on the Barricade and Eponine’s death in ‘Little Fall of Rain’, for example both needed more reaction from everyone around them to make the necessary emotional impact.
That said, nothing should be taken away from what was a difficult, brave and bold undertaking with one of the most iconic show of the last 30 years and DMT Footlights did it proud. The whole cast and crew were quite deserving of the standing ovation they received at the end of our performance and I am certain this would not have been the only one of the run.
The cast will have had the experience of their lives, as will the production team of Lucy, Naomi, Simon and the rest - though perhaps for slightly different reasons!
This group should be very pleased with this production as they continue to progress and develop as a Company both on and off-stage. I wish you every success, hope my observations are taken as intended suggestions to help improve further and look forward to your progression through your future productions. Thank you for a very enjoyable night out again.