It is McDonald's greatest claim to fame that its product is exactly the same in Baltimore, Bath or Beijing. The same goes for Cameron Mackintosh's . Comparing the Bristol production to the original London cast recording shows how homogeneous the product is. Residents of the West Country can now get a slice of the world's most popular musical on their doorsteps. It's big, it's lovely to look at, and the tunes are ... so-so.
There are, presumably, still people who haven't seen this world-embracing leviathan. Well, in 1830s France - a remarkably dark place in Trevor Nunn and John Caird's production - a convict, Jean Valjean, is released on parole from penal servitude, taken in by a bishop, and repays the kindness by stealing the episcopal silver. When he is caught, the bishop lies to the police to save him. This persuades Valjean to become an honest man and a bit of a sanctimonious prig. He adopts an orphan child, Cosette, who grows up to be nauseatingly sickly-sweet and falls in love with a wimp of a student. All this sanctity on its own would be emetic, so the mixture is spiced up by the regular reappearance of Javert - the arch- baddy who keeps getting jobs in just the right place - and the Thenadiers, a Punch and Judy couple who revel in greed and immorality. Their daughter Eponine lusts after the wimpy student and dies tragically on the barricade. The barricade is, of course, the highlight of the evening (and a remarkable piece of set design). The rebels, headed by Enjolras, sing lots of rousing songs about the bright new world to come, then die horribly but prettily. Javert throws himself to his death in another spectacular piece of staging, and then it's all on stage for the finale as Valjean dies a redeemed man.
In interpreting this melodramatic saga, the cast are limited by the standardisation of the Les Mis product and a fairly creaking script. Yet Gemma Sandy (Eponine) and Mark O'Malley (Enjolras) manage to make an impression with their powerful voices, and Peter Corry (Javert) bestrides the stage like a nasty colossus, while tempering his character with enough humanity to make his final suicide believable. Cathy Breeze throws herself heart and soul into the salacious Madame Thenardier. Cameron Blakely as her husband can be irritating (there is only so much Faginesque cheery cockney you can stomach).
There is nothing in the score to give the listener a real gut-wrench, and the fact that most of the songs are constructed more like a rising trumpet fanfare than a melody can start to grate on those looking for a proper tune. But this is not the point about . This is not simply a stage show - this is a phenomenon. It is the bombast, the spectacle, and the choreography that impress: the use of the revolving stage to allow cinematic tricks, the sophisticated lighting effects, the careful positioning of actors to give the impression of a cast of thousands. The story line and the music are secondary. Leave your ears at home, and feast your eyes - that way you'll be able to tell your grandchildren what all the fuss was about.
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