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Packemin Productions: Les Misérables - Review by Daniel Conway

I have never understood people who don't go back and revisit media that they like. I can, and have watched the same movies and TV shows dozens of times, and each time have enjoyed them because although nothing changes, sometimes I have, I see things differently and appreciate things I didn't notice before. This confusion about people who are one and done goes double for live theatre; even if you were to see the same show days apart, there is always something different, an energy, an intangible that only happens with a living text. This is why shows like Les Misérables will always be performed. Each production has its own flavour, its own intangible that connects with the audience. This is true for Packemin Productions' season that opened Friday 28th July.

Packemin Productions have staged a slick and engaging show that was full of exceptional stagecraft and design. The team led by the directorial vision of Luke Joslin have managed something truly incredible. I was absolutely enamoured with the sets and their deceptive simplicity. I use the word "simple" because at no point is the stage cluttered, but the few stage pieces are vital to create depth, cut the stage in half to make it feel full with the already sizeable ensemble, and are moved around with such precision that I couldn't help but be impressed. Transitions are important in a show like Les Misérables because the runtime is already so long that there is really no time to delay; the stage team led by Linus Karasi should be commended for their amazing work. This is a big show musically, with no dialogue that is not sung or underscored, an orchestra of 18 people, and an ensemble in the multitudes. I cannot fathom the work put in by Musical Director and conductor Peter Hayward, assisted by Rob McDougall. Every note from the band, every vocal line, was perfect. Bravo. The ensemble not only sounded like a force on stage but moved as a cohesive unit. The choreography of Gelina Enriquez really helped to capture the mood on stage. The last technical aspect I want to highlight is the costume and makeup. The costumes were beautiful. Obviously, there is a set look at specific costume pieces, the iconic red jacket with gold accents, but the care in which they were done was not unnoticed. The use of makeup to gradually age Jean Valjean was well done and subtle, so congratulations to Karen Lamont-Barnett, Audrey Currie, and their teams.

Daniel Belle as Jean Valjean is a force of nature. His voice is absolutely stunning, never more so than when he sings "Bring him home," which demonstrates his range not only as a singer but also as an actor emoting through the song. Reading his bio in the program, you can't help but establish an expectation that this man is going to be good, an expectation easily met and worthy of the standing ovation he engendered on opening night. Almost the same can be said of Robert McDougall as Javert. Having played the role before, you get the sense that there is a comfort and ease with his performance. McDougall has studied this man, knows who he is and how he moves. His voice is wonderful and rich, and the rapport on stage between McDougall and Belle is undeniable and electric. Seeing these men perform is worth the price of admission alone. However, the cost of a ticket is a bargain when you consider the other talent on stage.

Les Misérables is the story of Jean Valjean, but let's be honest, the songs that have permeated the zeitgeist, that are iconic of this show, belong to the ladies. Fantine and Eponine are big roles with big expectations, and Courtney Emmas and Daniella Delfin deliver big time. I am going to be honest: when I first saw Emmas on stage, I thought she looked too young for Fantine, but she proved me wrong big time. The emotional journey and the depth that she has as a performer were front and centre in her performance of "I dreamed a dream," her physicality morphing to match the weight of the moment, contrasted to her ghostly return in the finale that shows the lightness, unburdened by the human suffering of the character. Delfin gave me chills during "On my own." Their voice is so good, and the way they held the stage had me mesmerized. You could tell this moment meant a lot to both performers, and they both smashed it out of the park.

The duo of Garth Saville and Emily Kimpton are utterly entertaining as Monsieur and Madame Thénardier. They not only chew every scene they are in, they utterly devour it. These are two very seasoned professionals who know how to command a stage and have amazing chemistry. The young lovers of Cosette and Marius are played by Georgia Burley and Brenton Bell. Both start the show with a youthful excitement that is infectious and heartbreaking as you follow Marius through the tragedy to follow. Bell captures this journey exceptionally; his Marius is a totally different man when you hear him sing "Empty chairs at empty tables." Both Bell and Burley sing beautifully together and have a wonderful energy on stage. Marius shares the stage with many other young idealistic students; among them is Tom Kelly as Enjolras. Infused with an infectious and commanding idealism perfect for the de facto leader of this revolutionary front, Kelly excels in this role. There are many faces in this ensemble, but one that always drew my attention is Tana Laga'aia. His physicality and presence made him such a joy to watch on stage. This is especially true in the scenes he shares with Gavrouche (as is the custom for child roles, many young actors play this part, but for Opening night, the role was played by Joe Thomas). Thomas made his musical theatre debut on opening night, and I could not be more impressed with his talent. This young man has a bright future in performing if this first show is anything to go by. This is a show with a massive ensemble, and each and everyone of them should be proud of their work on stage. I cannot find a single fault with these talented people. The richness and fullness of the sound is down to each and everyone of them.

There is an intangible equality to all shows that connects to the audience. While I think it is hard to give words to what it is, it is less challenging to say where it comes from. The Cast and Crew of Packemin Productions' Les Misérables have done an amazing job of bringing this text to life, and I highly encourage seeing this show if you get the chance. I give this show 4.75 twenty-year sentences for stealing bread to keep your sister's son alive out of 5.

Photos courtesy of Grant Leslie

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