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Review: Minimalist ‘Les Misérables’ strips story down to the basic themes (Includes first-hand account)

This is what makes Theatre Smith-Gilmour‘s new stage adaptation of the 1862 classic, which opened on Tuesday, all the more refreshing. It’s not a perfect production, but it’s the closest to Hugo’s vision that we’re likely to get these days. Stripped of all the bombastic songs that have become the favourites of high-school musical-theatre geeks and peeled down to its essential themes, Les Misérables seems more intimate and personal. It’s not the grand epic of revolution and political uprising that everybody thinks it is, but a small story about a man who is haunted all his life by conscience.

That man is Jean Valjean, played by company co-founder Dean Gilmour, a French fugitive from justice who has spent nineteen years in hard labour after trying to steal a loaf of bread. Valjean changes his name and becomes a wealthy businessman, but is recognized and thereafter pursued by the obsessed police chief Inspector Javert (Mac Fyfe), whose strict adherence to duty is often a serious blind spot to basic human empathy. “God knows it’s easy to be kind,” Javert says at one point. “What’s difficult is being just.”

After the doomed prostitute Fantine (Nina Gilmour) suffers and dies in poverty, Valjean rescues her daughter Cosette (also the younger Gilmour) from her cruel guardians, the Thénardiers (Daniel Roberts, Diana Tso), and dedicates his life to raising her while evading Javert. Complications happen when the adult Cosette secretly falls in love with Marius (Benjamin Muir), a young Parisian who has abandoned his upper-class family to take part in the June Rebellion of 1832 – and this indirectly leads Valjean to new confrontations with Javert and with himself.

Again, this revolutionary episode is just the setting of this story’s climax – a smaller part than many remember or imagine. As adapted by Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith (and directed by Smith), this physical-theatre version of Les Misérables condenses Hugo’s enormous novel to two and a half hours with surprising success, emphasizing Valjean’s character development and how conscience motivates not only his actions, but also those of Javert. This feels faithful to the vision of the original book – as opposed to Soulpepper’s current production of Animal Farm, which twists George Orwell’s bitterly funny satire of communist dictatorship into a goofy call to arms against Trump (or something) and thereby misses the point.

Two years in the making, Smith-Gilmour’s production may be small-scale and minimal, with a cast of six playing multiple roles, but it’s quick-moving and inventive. Victoria Wallace’s set is spare, with furniture and props brought onstage only when needed, and the actors’ mime skills are all that are needed to bring a horse and buggy into existence, or a shop window holding Cosette’s favourite doll. Smith has cast members perform voices and sound effects offstage, creating convincing effects of crowds or bustling French cities. Sometimes, actors perform dialogue with themselves as different characters, or even narrate their own stories in the third person.

One of the most powerful (and creepy) moments has the guilt-ridden Valjean standing in the dark, being aurally assaulted by the voices in his head – actually the whispering voices of the other players. Another highlight is the June Rebellion sequence, during which black-and-white images of historic Parisian buildings are projected on an upstage screen behind the rebels as they build a barricade out of all of the set furniture, while Johnny Hockin’s sound effects create the impression of an inner-city battle. It’s a fine demonstration of how you don’t necessarily need a big budget or complex production design to make a setting come alive.

But one inexplicable choice by Smith that doesn’t work is having Valjean and Fantine narrate part of their stories with a microphone early in the play. Not only does this clash with the nineteenth-century period setting, it also feels unnecessary and out of character with the minimalist style of the production, which otherwise works hard to create setting and atmosphere with limited technical means. (Why would you need a mic in a space as small as the Franco Boni Theatre, anyway?) There’s a slight inconsistency of tone in the second act as well, with Marius’ infatuated pursuit of Cosette presented in a mildly comedic way (today, of course, we’d denounce him as a stalker), and Thénardier delivering an in-jokey aside to the audience while pretending to be poor as a scam: “Such is the state the arts are reduced to.”

Dean Gilmour’s scruffy yet affable Valjean remains likeable and sympathetic all the way through the production, and I also like Roberts’ gleefully villainous turn as Thénardier; in addition, Muir makes a fine, passionate Marius, and Nina Gilmour’s transition from the adult Fantine to the squeaky-voiced child Cosette is charming. Fyfe is a bit stiff as Javert, but then, Javert is such a rigid and unimaginative character that maybe that’s the best way to play him. (I’d much rather see Fyfe in the role than Russell Crowe, any day.)

Smith-Gilmour’s Les Misérables continues the local company’s tradition of physical theatre based primarily on movement, and it succeeds on its own terms. It doesn’t pretend to be a radical reworking of Hugo’s novel; in fact, its rejection of the musical bells and whistles that have come to define this material is what makes the story seem fresh again.

Les Misérables runs at the Franco Boni Theatre at Toronto’s Theatre Centre until April 1.

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