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Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary(2010)
Cameron Mackintosh presents a brand new 25th anniversary production of Boublil & Schönberg's legendary musical, LES MISÉRABLES, with glorious new staging and spectacular reimagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo. This new production has already been acclaimed by critics, fans and new audiences and is breaking box office records across the UK. Cameron Mackintosh is now ‘Bringing her Home’ to play at the Barbican Theatre in London (where it originally premiered in 1985) as part of the show’s 25th Anniversary celebrations. Les Mis will run for 22 performances only between 14 September – 2 October 2010. This will be the first time anywhere in world that two productions of the same musical are playing in the same city, giving London theatre-goers the only chance of seeing this acclaimed new production.
For more about Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary and the Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray release, see Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 4, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Lea Salonga, Nick Jonas, Matt Lucas (I), Samantha Barks
Directors: Laurence Connor, James Powell
» See full cast & crew
Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray Review
The rest of the world surrenders to the French for a change.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 4, 2011
We Americans can be a little boorish about our contributions to worldwide arts and culture, springing no doubt from the relative youth of our nation and the insecurities that youth fosters. When you're up against European societies which have been cranking out inestimable masterpieces in any number of genres for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years, it's easy to get a little sensitive about things. Two items which regularly fall under the "Made in America" column are jazz and musical theater, though of course anyone who's ever listened to a Mozart cadenza or a Puccini opera may wish to offer alternative theories of these art forms' geneses. Putting aside jazz for the sake of this review, it's inarguable, however, that from around the 1920's on at least, the United States led the way in developing the musical and providing season after season of innovative staging and hit filled scores. From Romberg and Hammerstein to Kern and Hammerstein to the Gershwins to Rodgers and Hart to any number of lesser known writers, American audiences were regularly treated to wonderful pieces that ever more successfully wed songs with libretti. While the commonly accepted theory is that the honest to goodness book musical really took off with 1943's Rodgers and Hammerstein masterpiece Oklahoma!, the fact is there are scads of forerunners which pointed the way to this very unique combination of dialogue, song and dance. In the wake of Oklahoma!, America had an almost embarrassment of riches when it came to writings teams who churned out a succession of incredible musicals. In addition to Rodgers and Hammerstein, the 1940's saw the emergence of Lerner and Loewe, and then the 1950's introduced us to Adler and Ross (Pajama Game, Damn Yankees) and Bock and Harnick (Fiorello!, Fiddler on the Roof).
Things started to get just a tad dicier in the 1960's, with Kander and Ebb (Cabaret) the only serious contenders for picking up the Rodgers and Hammerstein torch and moving it forward a generation. But of course Stephen Sondheim was waiting in the wings. After his one-two punch as lyricist for two of the greatest 1950's musicals, West Side Story and Gypsy, he had seen his career path as both composer-lyricist and lyricist alone embrace both hits (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), financial disappointments (Do I Hear a Waltz?), and outright flops (Anyone Can Whistle). But starting with 1970's Company, Sondheim established himself as the reigning genius of musical theater, while relative also-rans like another Stephen, Stephen Schwartz, carved out niches for themselves with pieces like Godspell and Pippin. But while the 1970's were still largely an "American" decade for musicals, there were warning signs, the first of which was probably a little double album which actually came out in 1970, Jesus Christ Superstar. Though it was billed as a "concept album," this rock opera introduced worldwide audiences to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice (British audiences already knew the pair from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat which hadn't yet reached across the pond to touch the likes of Donny Osmond).
Everything changed for the American musical with the 1976 arrival of Webber and Rice's Evita, which took Broadway by storm and ushered in over a decade of British and European "mega-shows" like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. Joining this wave were Frenchmen Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, who brought their immense musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's iconic novel Les Misérables to the Parisian stage in 1980. By the time the musical had opened in London in 1985, and then the U.S., first in 1986 and then on Broadway in 1987, it was already a worldwide phenomenon the likes of which outshone even the long string of Lloyd Webber smashes which had populated the world's musical stages for the preceding several years. This was musical making on the most gigantic canvas imaginable, a huge, sprawling, quasi-operatic piece that managed to connect with audiences in a somewhat surprisingly visceral way.
The 19th century saw the rise of a number of authors deeply associated with their individual country's zeitgeist, and each of these "national" writers seemed to convey a sense of their culture's very soul in their work. If Charles Dickens famously stated "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times" in summing up his view of "his" London (and of course Paris), Victor Hugo, sort of a melancholic French Dickens himself, evidently only believed half of that proposition, at least if one goes by Les Misérables, which takes its title literally, detailing a virtually endless display of miserable humans suffering untold humiliation, travails and other petty annoyances. Les Misérables has so entered the international consciousness at large that there's virtually no one (of adult age anyway) who does not know the well-worn story of hapless Jean Valjean, a well meaning but poor gentleman who had the misfortune to need to feed himself and his hungry relatives, thereby stealing a loaf of bread, which brought him first into two decades of imprisonment and then after his release, into nonstop harassment by the evil policeman Javert. But Valjean's troubles are only part of the toll of human misery that makes up Les Mis; we also have Fantine, who becomes a prostitute in order to support her daughter Cosette, as well as The Thenardiers, despicable innkeepers who delight in child abuse and cheating their customers. This is the sort of dramatic content that is more at home in the world of grand opera than the supposedly light and frilly arena of musicals.
Les Misérables is a huge, meandering novel which covers a lot of territory, both geographically and emotionally. The source material has not fared particularly well in any of its multimedia adaptations, including several film versions. Similarly, no one would ever accuse this adaptation, which has thrilled millions in countless countries, of being particularly subtle. The score, which is uniformly accessible (for better or worse) and tuneful, alternates between bombast and simple, if effective, melodies (including the lovely "I Dreamed a Dream" and "Send Him Home," which received my favorite Forbidden Broadway parody ever as "It's Too High--This Song's Too High"). Herbert Kretzmer's English lyrics (adapting the original French texts of Boublil) rarely approach the finesse and craft of Sondheim, but they usually do their job with a minimum of embarrassment, and occasionally (such as in "The End of the Day") rise to levels of relative excellence. What this show has going for it is an overabundance of heart and, suitably, a feel for the common man and what the hoi polloi will enjoy in musical theater. This is in its own way what used to be called on Broadway "a businessman's musical," the sort of show a tired working stiff could come and sit back and enjoy without having to think too much. Les Mis may in fact have loftier ambitions than the typical "businessman's musical," but the fact is in its pageantry and frankly simple minded approach to its subject matter, it aptly recreates the "businessman's musical" model in style if not in substance.
Fans of Les Mis have had previous home video releases of the musical, the most recent prior to this new Blu-ray being the 10th Anniversary "Dream Cast" concert re-release, which featured a host of international stars who had helped make their theatrical names by being featured in various casts (including the West End and Broadway) of the show. This 1995 version had been previously released, gone out of print, and had begun fetching huge sums on eBay and similar sites that could have in another age attracted the interest of Javert himself. That version hasn't yet made it to Blu-ray and might be more attractive, at least based on marquee value alone, than this new 25th Anniversary Edition which features a few Original Cast members (of various international iterations) like Lea Salonga, while also resorting to some perhaps troublesome stunt casting of people like the Jonas Brothers' Nick Jonas.
There are several issues which will probably keep this Blu-ray from supplanting the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast DVD in most fans' collections, at least until the new feature film which is "proudly announced" at the end of this concert makes it to cineplexes and then to home video. The first is the immense, almost unnerving, size of the venue, London's gargantuan O2 Arena. This mammoth space seats tens of thousands of spectators (at least when they stay seated, anyway, which isn't often for this audience), and has an ungainly acoustical ambience which from the sound of some of the ensemble at least kept the singers from adequately hearing the orchestra or, more importantly, themselves. Les Mis is large enough without being thrust into such a gigantic setting, something more akin to rock shows than concert musicals. The very rock show ambience also is problematic, as alluded to above, in that this audience, obviously rapturously involved in the proceedings, rarely if ever shuts up. Normally a sound mix allows for the intrusive audience noise to at least be minimized, but here it's so incessant and overwhelming it can't help but at least duel with the onstage performance, if not ultimately win.
The biggest issue, however, is the casting, and that's really no fault of this particular production (with at least one notable exception). The original versions obviously opened, well, 25 years ago, and several of the original performers are simply getting to be too long in the tooth to adequately inhabit their roles anymore. So instead of Colm Wilkinson as Valjean we get Alfie Boe, and instead of Roger Allam (or Terrence Mann) as Javert, we're offered Norm Lewis. There isn't anything wrong with either of these fine gentlemen, and yet they labor in the shadows of fans' memories of the initial performers who "founded" these roles. Lewis at least had some history with this piece, having portrayed Javert in the 2006 revival which featured Alexander Gemignani, the son of Sondheim's favorite conductor, Paul Gemignani, as Valjean. And while we do at least have Salonga as Fantine, and alumnus Jenny Galloway as Madame Thenardier, this production goes for "pop star" glory, such as it is, with some risky casting gambits which don't entirely pay off. The best of these is Samantha Barks as Éponine. Ms. Barks may not be a familiar name to Americans, but she was a finalist in an American Idol-esque television contest to play Nancy in a revival of Oliver!. The worst choice here is inarguably Nick Jonas, who incredibly receives second billing on the Blu-ray insert despite playing the relatively minor role of Marius. Jonas is simply vocally ill equipped to sing with the rest of this cast. His slight, yelp-prone voice may be perfect for squeaky clean Disney features, but it's a bad fit here in this context.
Les Mis shows no signs of slowing down as it enters its second quarter century of life, and this utterly mammoth new concert production will most likely keep that momentum going no matter what any cynical reviewer may opine. That long tradition gets a touching coda here as members of the Original London Cast, including Wilkinson, join the current 2010 concert cast onstage for some nice encores. Four Valjeans join together in "Bring Him Home," which in this case brings down the house. Things go on a bit too long after that, unfortunately, with some speechifying and introductions that probably would have been better left to the supplements. While this production has its issues, longtime fans will most likely flock to it willingly, happily passing their time until the big budget feature film shows up, hopefully before the 50th Anniversary Concert.
Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray, Video Quality
Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert is brought home on Blu-ray with a VC-1 encoded 1080p transfer in 1.78:1. While this is at least an okay looking transfer, it's unfortunately at times not much more than okay, due largely to the softening effects of bright stage lighting. The bright blue and red lighting scheme robs midrange and far range shots of a great deal of fine detail, leaving things murky and muddy looking. The good news is, there's spectacular coverage here, including a wealth of medium close-ups and close-ups which finally get this to true hi-def looking material. The close-ups manage to escape the blooming propensities of the wider range shots, and at last we get wonderfully rich, well saturated color without any bleeding or fuzziness. Fine detail in these shots is very good, to the point you can see the pill on some of the martial suit jackets. Ruddy faces and flyaway hair is also viewable in abundance. The strangest things about this offering is its "thin" video look, despite being delivered in 1080p. There's a textureless look to this presentation that had it been a film would have pointed toward DNR.
Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray, Audio Quality
If you can get past the omnipresent crowd noise, Les Misérables' lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix has a lot to offer. Unfortunately this is one case where the wide spread of the surround mix actually works against the cohesiveness of the overall product, as you simply can't escape the sound of the audience here. Perhaps just as telling, there's simply too much hall ambience at times, giving the orchestra a slightly distant feel. The disappointing thing about this release is that the stereo mix, which could have alleviated some of these problems by giving us a narrower soundfield, is presented in only a lossy standard Dolby Digital 2.0 format. But if you take the 5.1 mix warts and all, you're probably going to be more pleased than displeased. Boe, Lewis, Salonga and several of the major supporting cast (including a luminous Katie Hall as Cosette) sound wonderful, and despite the perhaps too spacious soundfield, the balance between orchestra and singers is artfully handled. Fidelity is excellent here, with the towering orchestrations sounding marvelously grandiose.
Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
A Whiz Thru Miz (4:56), perhaps the most unfortunately titled supplement since Wiz On Down the Road on The Wiz, is a whirlwind trip through the history of the project, with news reports and various statistics of the show's many international productions.
Les Misérables in Concert: The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
For the legions of Mis-heads worldwide, the most exciting thing about this Blu-ray release is probably going to be the announcement at the end of the concert that a feature film version is on its way (it's currently slated for 2013, but I wouldn't hold my breath). Otherwise, those with a long attachment to the show will probably still want to opt for the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast concert, despite this current release's Blu-ray presentation. This "mega-show" is such a phenomenon that it may be able to break the decades' long curse that most film musicals have withered under. Until then, while completists will no doubt want to have this concert in their collections, it's the 10th Anniversary outing that remains definitive until we see what Universal "brings home" for the feature film release.
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