Tragic narratives, heart-wrenching songs, and some humour sprinkled in between. These are the plot elements of Victor Hugo’s classic novel Les Miserables. While the novel has been brought to life on the Broadway stage for many years, and was made into a movie in 2012, the Arts Club in Vancouver brought the production to life on the Stanley Industrial Alliance stage with mixed results.
Set in 1800s France, the story centres on the journey of convict Jean Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy) who is released after nineteen years of imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread. He breaks his parole and tries to start anew and live an honest life. However, his past always seems to follow him as he is tracked by the ruthless Inspector Javert (Warren Kimmel) throughout the years. Meanwhile, a revolutionary movement is brewing in France, and several young idealists have come together to make a stand at the barricades against the French monarchy.
While the size of the theatre limited their set capabilities, the cast was still able to convey the emotional depth of the story through their enthusiastic commitment to their roles. The blocking of ensemble numbers such as the rowdy “Master of the House” and the compelling anthem “One Day More” was strategic and purposeful. Never has a more surefooted crowd of people held command of such a small stage.
However, the placement of actors onstage didn’t allow for a set focal point for certain scenes, as, for instance, actors who were standing parallel to each other on opposite sides of the stage made the song “A Heart Full of Love” hard to follow. This was disappointing, considering it was a scene that had multiple narratives running through the lyrics — one being the young love blooming between Cosette (Kaylee Harwood) and Marius (Sayer Roberts), the other being the heartbroken plight of Eponine (Jennie Neumann) as she is in love with Marius herself.
Some of the transitions between scenes were also abrupt and sacrificed audience comprehension of events for the sake of musical continuity.
Yet the smaller theatre also had its benefits, as the intimate venue allowed for audiences to see characters at their most vulnerable. Murphy gave an incredible depth to Jean Valjean, as the swells of his voice moved the story forward while depicting the moral struggles he had between his life as a past criminal and an adoptive father. Never too showy with his voice, his narration made for a compelling and resonant performance.
Another standout was Neuman’s heartfelt and forlorn rendition of the song “On My Own,” which spoke of her unrequited love. Roberts also displayed his emotions with a trembling voice in the grief-laden tune “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.”
All in all, Les Miserables was a captivating musical that successfully translated a traditionally large production onto a smaller stage. By bringing melody to tragedy, the cast’s performance transcended the limitations of their venue and made the audience feel right alongside them.
Les Miserables is presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company from July 2 to August 16. For more information, visit artsclub.com.