Honestly, his Jean Valjean of 19 years ago (I was in diapers then but I still recall it – ok part of that's a lie) was a stellar performance. As someone who went to that '96 production armed with every note and lyric and just about burning to criticize, I was blown away instead. Jehan's Valjean is still masterful. A little less of the velcro ripping and that (awful) wig, and it would have been perfect.
Now to all the things that ARE different. Kanishka Herath played Valjean's erstwhile nemesis - Inspector Javert last night. I had heard good things about Kanishka, and his voice did not disappoint. The confrontation between Javert and Valjean was heart-stopping, with Kanishka and Jehan beautifully matched. However, while Kanishka can certainly sing, his acting leaves something to be desired, and Javert's Soliloquy (and subsequent suicide), while well sung, seemed, as a result, to be lacking in motivation or explanation.
Melanie Bibile delivered a fine, vulnerable performance as Fantine. Any (and there were a few) who doubted her suitability for the role of Eva in the Workshop Players 2012 production of Evita, will find little to complain about here.
Amandhi Caldera was a standout as Eponine. Personally, I never understood what Marius saw in Cosette, and Amandhi's performance only furthered my view. What. A. Voice. Shenali Pilapitiya as Cosette was also exceptional. Cosette is by and large a thankless and rather dull role, but Shenali's engaging performance made me think 'Gosh, this really IS better than their original production'.
Amandhi and Shenali by dint of excellence, did however rather succeed in outshining their love interest, Marius, who was played by Gyles Dharmaratne. I first saw Gyles play Raoul in the Workshop Players 2014 production of 'Phantom' and was rather underwhelmed. I much prefer his Marius. Gyles makes a very likeable romantic lead and plays the love-struck young man to perfection. However his voice was simply not strong enough to compete with those of the women in his life, and while better matched with Shenali, his duet with Eponine (the classic tearjerker 'A little fall of rain') fell rather flat.
As a Michael Ball devotee, I found 'Empty Chairs and Empty Tables' to also be less than stunning from a vocal point of view. However, it must be said that Mr Dharmaratne does deserve full marks for a heartfelt and emotional performance, which I am sure made the whole audience very pleased that he didn't die, got his happy ending, and kept all his hair.
And now to the loathsome characters who provide both comic relief and skin crawling nastiness - the Thenardiers, portrayed last night by Sean Amarasekera and Shanuki de Alwis.
Shanuki is always a reliable performer, but her turn as Madam Thenadier really took the cake; bawdy, loud, foul and yet completely likeable, her portrayal left nothing to be desired. Completely bad ass.
Having made a heartbreaking Phantom in last years' production, Sean Amarasekera's Thenardier will be a rude shock to all those who remember the romance of that previous performance. Consistently vile from start to finish, and from stained teeth to stolen shoes; Sean's performance was diamond sharp. It's easy to laugh at 'Master of the House' but the sheer revulsion he engendered crawling around in the 'Dog eat dog' sewer sequence, is harder to pull off. Bravo Thenadiers, bravo.
Little Cosette and Gavroche were endearing, though they both suffered from one of the biggest negatives of the night – the dreaded technical glitch.
The production was plagued by sound issues. Choppy in many sections, discordant in others, and most disappointingly, awash with microphones that sometimes didn't seem to work at all. Tut tut. Anyway, I have no doubt that this will be fixed. And it should be since this is a show worth hearing.
Another aspect with which I wish to quibble is the ensemble. Lacklustre is the descriptive that comes most forcefully to mind. This isn't usually the case with the Workshop, and I hope that it was a result of first-night nerves. Certainly, things did improve as we went along, but the opening Look Down, At the end of the day and Lovely ladies were all lacking in, for want of a better word, balls.
The Students too were rather an uneven group, while Eshan Thilakasena made an impressive Enjolras, and Niren Ranasinghe an enthusiastic Grantaire, the rest of the gang seemed to lack both lustre AND balls. Made me think 'NOT as good as their original production'. It's possible that the technical glitches were somewhat to blame but not all, not by a long chalk.
Oh, and one more thing - the word 'we' starts with a w, not a v. Let's not underestimate the importance of Diction.
As I said this IS a new production – you will find many more details in Surein's note on "The Remaking of a Classic" in the souvenir so I won't bother to go into it. Suffice to say that it looks good, the lighting by the ever-reliable Jayatilleke brothers and Panduka Samarasinghe is impressive, and even if you aren't blown away you are certainly not going to be disappointed. As one would expect, Jojo's costuming is sumptuous, and the entire production is pretty much slick and seems for the most part seamless (I was slightly concerned that Thenadier would destroy a fair part of Valjean's residence but everything held up under the onslaught).
While I feel that last years' Phantom was a better production on all levels, Les Miserables is far superior to Evita (I can't speak for Superstar which I missed, or not, depending on who you believe) and Jerome De Silva and his Workshop team are to be congratulated.
The Workshop Players is the only theatrical company large enough, and in possession of enough pull (in terms of talent and cash) to do shows like these. They have no rivals in the space in which they operate (and are unlikely to) and thanks to them I have been able to witness several of my favourite musicals. For that, I am ever grateful.
The multiple cast business is annoying. I understand completely why it is fair and even necessary, but it IS annoying, particularly since it means that one often has to go on several nights in order to take in all one's favourite performers. An expensive business at those ticket prices! Frankly, I think everyone who buys a 3500 ticket should get the souvenir FOC. Humph.
As per my grouse about multiple casts, I will be going to Les Miserables again before the run ends. Yes, there goes another three hours of my life that I won't get back again, but, in truth, that's really not such a bad deal. As one who engages in reviewing rather than doing, I have often felt reluctant to criticize (ok that's a lie – I love ripping things to shreds) but really there is nothing too much to complain about here.
So, here's the bullet point sum up:
- Is it worth seeing? Definitely
- Is it long? Yes, but you won't notice
- Is it as good as their first one? Yes. Better even, overall.
- Is it kid friendly? Unless you want to explain prostitution, premarital sex and babies, not to mention a lot of penis metaphors, then, No.
- Will you cry? I defy anyone to not tear up at some point.
So, Workshop Players, I look forward to seeing (most of) you again soon. Till then – make our theatre-going lives worth living.