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Posts tagged ‘Musical’

Magnificently Miserable: Les Misérables the Movie

You know a film has been good when you have to cower as the cinema lights come up at the end for fear the audience will catch sight of your puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks, when the emotional exhaustion has left you depleted and dehydrated, and when you don’t want to leave until the music from the credits has stopped rolling. Tom Hooper’s new movie of Les Misérables must have been exceptionally good, because as the credits rolled, I suffered from all three symptoms unreservedly.

Almost from the moment Schonberg’s rapturous score began to play, the hairs on my arms stood erect, and my tear glands began to tingle. By Ann Hathaway’s incredibly performance of I dreamed a dream as Fantine, they were in full flow. But the question remains, was my intense emotional reaction and great enjoyment of this Les Misérables a reaction to the film, or just the score which has enchanted audiences for years?

Hugh Jackman is incredibly good as Jean Valjean

Hugh Jackman is incredibly good as Jean Valjean

The poster image - Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette

The poster image – Isabelle Allen as the young Cosette

Amanda Seyfried as older Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius

Amanda Seyfried as older Cosette and Eddie Redmayne as Marius

Undoubtedly both factored hand in hand. Nothing quite beats the power of the full cast singing in harmony together on a theatre stage, such as the performance of One More Day at the end of Act I, as the revolutionaries prepare for battle, and Jean Valjean prepares to rescue Marius and protect Cosette. The intensity and intimacy of the theatrical production cannot in fact be beaten in many respects, and has arguably reduced me to greater effluvia of tears than the film. But what the movie brings us is what only a movie can – Les Mis on a grand scale, with an ambitious backdrop of early 19th century Paris which could never be attempted by even the most significant of theatre stages. The opening scene of the movie is, for example, a stunning opener, as Hugh Jackman as the much wronged Jean Valjean, applies every last bit of energy into hauling a great big warship into a French port, while, of course, singing about the hardship he has endured. The scale of this immense marine backdrop was awe-inspiring and in union with the dramatic score made for a spine-tingling start to the film.

The brilliant Anne Hathaway as Fantine

The brilliant Anne Hathaway as Fantine

However there are two reasons why this adaptation of Les Misérables is, in my opinion, a real winner, over and above the already much loved and highly emotive Schonberg and Boublil score. The first is the cast. So often, when a musical is Hollywood-ised, funding is secured only by the promise of a super-famous cast of actors who are nonetheless unskilled in their musical ability. This is (apart from perhaps one exception) not the case here. I would never have guessed that X-Men’s Hugh Jackman would be such a good singer, with a fine tenor voice and demonstrating great skill, particularly in songs such as God on High with its octave leaps and challenging high notes. He also demonstrated himself to be a fine and versatile actor, oozing the moral strength and fortitude which is central to the character of the wronged yet self-sacrificing Jean Valjean. Equally brilliant was Anne Hathaway, who I’ve only really known from the Princess Diaries, The Devil Wears Prada and other light-hearted fair. Who would have known that she could act and sing with such incredible intensity? Her performance of I dreamed a dream was so brilliant, so natural, that hopefully, thank the lord, the horrendous massacre inflicted upon it worldwide by Susan Boyle will no longer be the peoples’ primary association with this musical masterpiece.

Thénardier and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen)

Thénardier and his wife (Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen)

Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks as Marius and Éponine

Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks as Marius and Éponine

Samantha Barks as Éponine

Samantha Barks as Éponine

I also loved Eddie Redmayne as Marius, showing a greater warmth and depth of character than he did in last year’s BBC adaptation of Sebastian Faulkes’ Birdsong, and also sporting an excellent singing voice. Mention should also go to the lesser known but equally good Samantha Barks who reprised her stage role as Éponine, Aaron Tveit as a very intense Enjolras, spurring on the young thinkers to revolution, little Daniel Huttlestore as a brilliantly charismatic Gavroche, and of course the ever entertaining Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, the double-barrelled twosome, who made the perfect Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, the duplicitous inn-keepers who lend much needed light relief to an otherwise heavy emotional tale.

Helena Bonham Carter as the outrageous Madame Thénardier

Helena Bonham Carter as the outrageous Madame Thénardier

My one reservation, and the exception I allude to above, is for Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert. While he certainly looked the part as the stern, restless, duty-bound inspector who makes it his life’s work to chase Jean Valjean who missed his parole and eluded him ever since, this is a musical after all, and while Crowe can hold a tune, his voice was way too weak to install the character with the musical strength and baritone depth that is required. The consequence was a voice that was strained and tended to let the side down. But not so much as to take away from the otherwise remarkable work of this brilliantly constituted cast.

Russell Crowe as Javert

Russell Crowe as Javert

The second respect in which I think this film succeeded was in the very innovative camera work. Tom Hooper as director appears to favour close up shots of the characters, which made for a particularly intense audience to character engagement during the pivotal moments of the film, such as Fantine singing I dreamed a dream and Marius singing Empty Chairs at Empty Tables (another superb performance). The camera lens almost appeared to give the effect of a convex focus, giving a very sharp focus on the character which then tapered off into a blurrier backdrop. The effect was intense, engaging and innovatively arty. It gave both a sense of realism and theatre, through which the very musical tenor of this film did not feel out of place.

Marius joins the revolution

Marius joins the revolution

Musicals converted into movies are not always successful. Les Misérables is clearly an exception to the rule. It’s a must of the 2013 cinematic season and I urge you to rush along to the cinemas as soon as you can. But don’t forget your Kleenex…

Cabaret returns in style to London’s Savoy Theatre

I’ve always adored Cabaret and I really don’t understand why it has taken so long to come back onto the London stage. With its unforgettable score, including classics such as Wilkommen, Maybe This Time, and the title song Cabaret, and a vivid, contrasting, and unsettling historical setting of 1930s Berlin just before the Nazi stranglehold on the city made its sinister debut, the musical is one of the all time greats. Of course, the spectacle is engrained upon the minds of most musical-lovers in the guise of Liza Minelli’s show-stopping performance of Sally Bowles in Bob Fosse’s 1972 film spectacular, but as a theatrical showpiece, it is every bit as enjoyable. Why then isn’t Cabaret a long-running favourite like the composing team (Kander and Ebb)’s other musical great, Chicago? The mind boggles.

The current showing, directed by Rufus Norris, is sadly only set to run until 19 January – so when I heard that the show was making a swift return to London’s Savoy Theatre, I bought tickets as soon as I could get myself onto ticketmaster. The main attraction for many will be the 2001 Pop-Idol winner, Will Young, cast in the role of Emcee. Will Young was born to play this role. He was nothing short of superb in the overtly exaggerated, flamboyant and at times menacing role of the Cabaret’s Master of Ceremonies. Young’s voice, which shot him to fame as the winner of the first major talent contest of the current millennium, was predictably mesmerizing – he didn’t sing a note out of tune. His performance played notable homage to Joel Grey’s famous imagining of the role in the Fosse film version, but also brought the character to life with fresh and abundant energy, with greater versatility in adapting the role of cabaret host into an effective historical narrator of the social changes happening outside of the Cabaret’s doors but whose poisonous potency was leaking more and more into the lives of the Cabaret’s showmen as each day of the Nazi uprising went on.

Will Young as Emcee

Puffed up for “Money makes the world go round…”

Indeed, while Will Young was easily the star of the show, the other real success of Norris’ direction was his use of the pre-existing score and story line to import an altogether more menacing historical narrative into the piece. The terror which was trickling and then stampeding onto the once sexually liberal, permissive and hedonistic Berlin streets was tangible throughout the show, and this allowed the audience to partake in the very real tension which pervaded the age, climaxing in a stunningly poignant ending which, while not giving it away for those of you who may still have an opportunity to see the show, hinted at the terrorising fate which lay in store for the “alternatives” of Berlin’s Cabaret underworld once the Nazis took control. It left one both chilled, moved and surprised at the end of a show which, in previous manifestations, had maintained a fairly light-hearted atmosphere throughout. In fact in Fosse’s film, the only tangible reference to the fate of the Cabaret is the presence of a swastika armband subtly reflected in the mirror of the Kit-Kat club as the film’s credits come down. Here, the impending doom of Nazi destruction is far more prevalent. My favourite scene was probably Will Young’s performance of the Hitler Jungen marching song, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, in which Young, latterly affixed with the emblematic moustache of Hitler, controls all the surrounding dancers on huge puppet strings, the handles of his puppetry manifesting into large red swastikas which can only be viewed at the climax of the scene, when Young’s singing moves from a demure politicised aria into the increasingly erratic screams of Hitler’s rally rantings. Meanwhile the puppets’ choreography swings from sexualised movement to the regimented marching of gun-wielding soldiers – a brilliant testimony to the mass manipulation of the Nazi propaganda machine and the social changes which swept through the nation.

Michelle Ryan as Sally Bowles

For me, the only real disappointment was Eastenders actress Michelle Ryan in the role of Sally Bowles. Minelli’s shoes are big ones to fill, and the role of Sally Bowles must be a daunting prospect for even the most adroit of singer-actresses. And yet such is the complexity of the role – a second-rate show star with an overtly familiar manner hiding a destructive, and at times desperate personality – that it would come as a challenge which most actresses would relish. But in Ryan’s interpretation, that depth and complexity of character was insufficiently prevalent. The eccentricity of the characterisation appeared a little forced and contrived, while the emotional breadth of the role was only scantly explored. Sally’s big ballad, Maybe This Time, lacked the integral desperation of the character who gives the audience this rare glimpse into the true insecurities lying beneath the bravado. Ryan’s performance seemed more concentrated on hitting the high notes – which she failed to do with any confidence. And while her singing was not at all bad, it appeared to be heavily reliant on amplification so that it could carry with anything resembling gusto. I understand that theatres want to attract audiences by casting celebrity stars, but Will Young will have been enough to pull in the crowds here. Sally Bowles is a superb opportunity for a budding actress to make it big, and I think it’s a real shame that this opportunity was not afforded to a deserving young star in the making.

Overall, Norris’ Cabaret is a brilliant reimagination of this piece of classic musical theatre which is given new life and a potent historical re-examination. Its success is however highly dependent on the captivating role played by Will Young, and for that reason is inherently unstable as an ongoing production, with a quickly evaporating shelf-life and a near disaster if Mr Young catches the flu. Let’s hope he keeps on pleasing audiences right through to January 19th.