It was a glittering affair at the premiere of Les Miserables last night at The Civic Theatre in Auckland. It was a red-carpet entry for celebrities and music theatre punters piled in for this Auckland Music Theatre and Amici Productions. The Theatre Company celebrates its 100th anniversary with this ambitious production. It’s also a show guaranteed to fill seats and it really hits the spot as an audience pleaser.
How gratifying to see an assembled cast of local and New Zealand performers. And the quality of singing and performing on stage is a testament to the very healthy and buzzing musical theatre scene happening in Auckland right now. I know the audition process was pretty rigorous so expectations were high for the results. Musical Director Penny Dodd led a very tight ship from the orchestra pit with a great range of colour from this experienced band.
On stage, the piece rips straight into the action, opening with Jean Valjean’s first ‘trial by fire’ - the convict scene. Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg wrote this piece for a superstar Valjean with an emotional and vocal range from quiet soul-searching to roaring anguish. It’s a huge role which James MacKay grabbed by the scruff of the neck from the very first scene. Not only a voice of baritone gold but he has the intensity and the diction too. Bring Him Home would have made God reach down his hand and personally move the chess pieces to the requested outcome. MacKay has a masterful blend of full voice into beautiful falsetto, a singer/actor who is a real core in this production.
But just as important was his foil, the tormented Javert played with huge flair by acclaimed performer Hayden Tee. Originally from Maungatoroto, Tee’s talents have taken him all the way to the West End and Broadway with a wide range of roles. He commanded charisma and delivered lines with authority. His dramatic diction was like whiplash, even if there was more bite than heft in his tone. However, we had to wait until his solo Stars to really hear Tee’s emotional and dynamic range.
Skilfully shaped by director Grant Meese and choreographer Hamish Mouat, staging was sculptural and dramatic. And most of the staging went to plan bar one little dance around a stage revolve. Design by veteran Allan Lees leaned toward the unsurprising in Act One. But Act Two brought out inventive jigsaw pieces of set, a fantastic barricade which added welcome height to the action and atmospheric gloom in the underground sewers.
Lighting lent an appropriate depth to the action and created some beautiful tableaux with ensemble and soloists. The sound was generally great but had a couple of glitches and bordered on being just too loud - volume doesn’t necessarily enhance text clarity.
Not only two excellent male lead performers last night but this is a piece that gives much scope to female characters too. Notable were Rebecca Wright as a warmly emotional Fantine, the precocious talents of Emily Robinson as Eponine and some eye-popping high notes from Alexandra Francis as Cosette, reminding us of how classical singing training can add to the tool bag.
From the rebel bunch, Bevan Williams delivered some heroic sounds even though the tone was a little pressed. And a moving rendition of Empty Chairs and Empty Tables from international chart-topping performer Will Martin marks his debut in musical theatre here in his home town of Auckland. No doubt this sweet-toned tenor will be back treading the theatre boards again soon. In addition, an astonishingly accomplished and endearing Gavroche in Matthew Curtis and beautiful moments with Lucy Singleton as Little Cosette and Addison Wells as Little Eponine.
But the night would not be complete without the infamous, the terrible, the terrifying tricksters, the Thénardiers. Hamish McGregor and Theresa Wells exploded with energy onstage. Some of these tavern scenes were simply overkill. But these two actor/singers lifted the show, bursting with character and bouncing off each other with insults and comic turns a-plenty.
The sum of these parts added up to an evening of very satisfying music theatre. No huge surprises or brilliant innovation, arguably this is not the show for such things. But the production delivered absolutely what Les Mis should and with consummate professionalism.
There was a standing ovation at the end of the night and hugely warm response from the audience throughout. But whether everyone last night felt moved by this Victor Hugo story of desperate times, that injustice, the tragedy of child abuse and the heroism, maybe this is not the venue or occasion for such tear-jerking moments. But it was an evening of centenary triumph, marking a hundred years of great music theatre from the impressively professional Auckland Music Theatre and Amici.
Radio 13 thanks and credits Lyndon Katene for the images used in this article.