Napier Operatic Society / 16 May – 1 June 2019 / Napier Municipal Theatre
Eponine dies (spoiler alert). And she’s so beautiful and so desperate, that as she does, front and centre, right there on the stage before us, a mother whispers sotto voce to her little boy, “Don’t worry, she’s just sleeping.” And the boy grips her arm, leans his blond head in and says (in a serious stage whisper we can’t help but hear), “She’s not sleeping, Mummy, she’s really dead.”
It takes gargantuan energy and effort to bring to such vibrant life one of the most oft-performed musicals in the world based on a dusty tome written 150 years ago about a happening 200 years old. Despite some minor oopses, opening night delivers star performances from leads and ensemble, satisfying set and costume, and thoughtful rendering and refreshing of this tried and true favourite.
To bring a new view to the piece, director Lisa-Jane Easter has had to dig deep and uncover themes from the original text. These are evident in the beautiful juxtaposition between delicate personal moments and bristling ensemble extravaganzas that literally make the old Muni shake. Those huge chorus pieces are made bolder and bigger set beside such subtle solos. Delivering to the promise by the director is a real task and, on the whole, most are up to it. The pull too between leads is a microcosm of the tension of the overall work. Throughout, the contrast between light and dark, soft and loud, full on and pared back epitomises the dichotomy between old ways and new, religion and revolution, hope and despair, family ties and freedom. It’s clever to use such an overarching modus operandi to deliver emotion, viscerally. Rather than being told, or even shown, we are forced to feel. And it feels good, despite any hiccups.
Arch enemies, Matt Kidd (Javert) and Mark Luscombe (Jean Valjean) have a dynamic chemistry that lasts from Go to Woah. The tautness between the two is a solid spinal column off which to hang other pairings. Both have excellent voices. Kidd especially can control tone and expression with such a soft touch when needed and such a boom when allowed.
Some voices suffer from a lack of stamina and breath control but there are some standouts too. Among the leads, Charlotte Oldershaw (Eponine) has controlled energy and a voice made for musical theatre that shines out over weaker voices but also over voices attempting to lift this piece into a more operatic genre. Each word from her mouth is clear; every gesture thoughtful.
Among the ensemble, there are some splendid voices and wonderful character actors. James McNeill is terrific, as is Kim Wright. Simeon Ria is stellar as Bishop of Digne. He’s someone I’d like to see more of.
The absolute star of the show is Jane Pierard as Madame Thenardier. Perfect timing, crystal delivery, hilarious comic mannerisms, in every way she’s a breath of freshness in what is a fairly intense offering. Together with compatriot Sam Draper (Thenardier) she really does steal the show (fitting, considering she plays a grifter).
The Children’s Ensemble and the child leads are all excellent and maintain energy and focus throughout.
The costuming, the palette particularly, and the set are very rewarding, and ingenious! The revolve makes perfect sense and brings a dynamism and seamlessness to scene changes. There are some questionable blocking choices but the cast is well mic-ed so perhaps traditional conventions can be abandoned in favour of creating dramatic tension.
There’s plenty of business that makes for a rich mise-en-scene. Of particular note, is the excellent execution of micro-gestures. In such a sizable auditorium it could be tempting to do away with fine detail, but this cast hasn’t. Eye rolls, lip curls and nose twitches, flicks of hands, even fingers are all tightly disciplined and carefully used to bring a depth to the piece that lifts it from am-dram to professionally polished.
The most satisfying moments are when the troupe delivers downstage. There are a few missed opportunities to do so but from barricades to bridges to stairs to sewers there are so many other places to play perhaps downstage really is best saved for the real knock-out moments.
It’s a big rewarding show and it deserves to be rewarded with big audiences. So, get involved in the revolution, mount the battlements, wave the flags: Liberté, égalité, fraternité!
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