Theatre Smith-Gilmour presents a stripped down black box take on the Victor Hugo classic in Toronto
The story of Les Misérables is well known to most as the 1980 musical by Claude-Michele Schöenberg, be it on stage or the movie starring Hugh Jackman. This theatrical adaptation by Dean Gilmour and Michele Smith, co-artistic directors of Theatre Smith-Gilmour, dives into the pathos of the story without relying on any of the big scores and big sets audiences have grown accustomed to. For me, this stripped down retelling of the well-known tale underscores some of the most timeless elements of the story. We do not need as much stuff as we think we need, and adhering to the status quo is not always the right choice.
In case you don’t know the story (Victor Hugo, 1862), it is an aptly named tale of woe wherein Jean Valjean, an unjustly convicted man attempts to turn his life around and help others, but his efforts are stymied by an ideologue police inspector named Javert who pursues him relentlessly for skipping out on his parole. Along the way, Jean Valjean meets Fantine, an unjustly fired employee of his who is forced to turn to sex work to support her illegitimate daughter Cosette, and eventually dies of consumption. He attempts to atone for his wrongs to Fantine by rescuing Cosette from the crooked Thénardiers, who have been using the little girl as slave labour at their inn.
Cosette and Valjean are very happy together, but Javert keeps catching up with them. There’s a rebellion against the monarchy, and a love story between Cosette and one of the rebels, Marius. Cosette marries Marius after the failed rebellion, and Valjean decides she’s better off without a fugitive convict in her life. Her husband agrees until he finds out Valjean saved his life during the rebellion. Cosette and Valjean are reunited just before his death. Meanwhile, Javert kills himself when it dawns on him that he has wasted most of his life hunting down a great guy who has not really done anything wrong.
The source novel is well over a thousand pages long, so condensing it down to a two and a half hour play is quite a feat. The story is faithful to the novel and engagingly told in this adaptation and the writers were obviously quite adept at finding the moments of humour in a story that is as heavy as the title suggests.
The production is mounted in a black box theatre. This means that there are no sets and the walls of the theatre space are black on all sides. In this production, there is also minimal use of furniture and props. This minimalism creates space for innovation. One of the most effective aspects of the production is the use of mime techniques to show moments like climbing a wall or pushing through a crowd. Black and white images projected onto a simple white backdrop are used evocatively to punctuate key moments in the story. The cast is attired in simple, period-inspired costumes that add colour and contrast to the black box.
Each performer plays multiple roles. The most striking example is Dean Gilmour portraying both Valjean and the kindly bishop having a conversation with one another. Dean Gilmour shifts between characters nimbly, completely transforming his demeanor and tone from line to line. His interpretation of Valjean was captivating and endearing, and above all human. Valjean is confronted with a number of ethical dilemmas. It is not always easy, but he always does what is right.
Dean Gilmour and Nina Gilmour had excellent onstage chemistry both at Valjean and Fantine and Valjean and Cosette. I found Nina Gilmour’s portrayal of Cosette as a little girl especially enchanting and funny.
Benjamin Muir demonstrated a superb command of physical comedy and character acting both a Tholomyes (the cad who leaves Fantine high and dry) and Marius. He seized the opportunity to demonstrate dramatic range as both the cad and the romantic hero.
Daniel Roberts was as greasy as the Colonel’s chicken in the role of greedy, low-level thug Thénardier. Roberts relied on body language and facial expressions effectively to elicit the laughs that are expected from this archetypal down and out conman.
The jocular vagabond villainy of Thénardier is in stark contrast to the dark villainy of Javert, a man doggedly dedicated to upholding the status quo. Mac Fyfe was straight up loathsome as Javert, which is what the roll calls for. The first time I saw Les Mis as a child, I was absolutely astonished when Javert commits suicide. Up until that point, he does not seem like someone who has enough feelings to become suicidal. Even though I knew what was going to happen this time, the suicide felt just as out of left field as it did when I was twelve, thanks to Fyfe maintaining an unwavering heart of stone up until that point.
Diana Tso played both Mme Thénardier and their daughter Eponine who grew up alongside Cosette and later becomes Marius’ love sick neighbour. Her performance as Eponine was particularly powerful and commanded a much stronger presence in the story than I have seen in other iterations.
This production demonstrates that the story has not become popular because of the Hollywood movie musical. People have been inspired to tell and see the story again and again because as Victor Hugo said “So long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” The big scores, sets, and LA A-list actors were not missed. With the writers, director and actors digging deep into the timeless humanity of the story, this production has everything it needs.
- Les Misérables is playing until April 1, 2018 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario).
- Show times are 8:00 PM on March 23, 24, 27-31 with additional matinees at 1 PM on March 24 & 31 and at 3 PM on March 25 and April 1.
- Ticket prices range from $25-40 (Adults: $40, Students/Arts workers: $30, Matinees: $25.
- Tickets are available online, by phone at 416-538-0988 or at the door.
Photo of Mac Fyfe and Nina Gilmour by Elisa Gilmour