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Nina Gilmour as Cosette in Theatre Smith-Gilmour production of Les Misérables.Elisa Gilmour

Rating:

2.5 out of 4 stars
  • Title: Les Misérables 
  • Written by: Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour in collaboration with the company, from the novel by Victor Hugo
  • Genre: Historical drama
  • Director: Michele Smith
  • Actors: Mac Fyfe, Dean Gilmour, Nina Gilmour, Benjamin Muir, Daniel Roberts, Diana Tso
  • Company: Theatre Smith-Gilmour
  • Venue: The Theatre Centre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Running to April 1, 2018

Do you hear the people sing? Not in a new stage adaptation of Les Misérables by Theatre Smith-Gilmour, the Toronto-based physical theatre company

To most, that two-word title no longer brings to mind the book by Victor Hugo that conquered the world in the 1860s, but rather the Boubil/Schonberg musical based on Hugo’s work that did the same in the 1980s.

So bringing Jean Valjean, prisoner number 24601, to the stage anew is either brave – or foolhardy.

Director Michele Smith’s spare, six-performer Les Misérables that opened at Toronto’s Theatre Centre begins intriguingly with the actor and the show’s co-writer Dean Gilmour taking the stage solo.

Gilmour narrates and partly acts out the origin story of Valjean, who, of course, spends nineteen years in jail for stealing a loaf of bread.

The charismatic and chameleonic actor quickly captures our attention, twirling back and forth between the brutalized Valjean and the saintly Bishop Myriel, who takes the convict in for a night after his release – and then saves him from being sent back to prison by telling the police the silverware he stole was a gift.

While this brief one-man Les Mis prologue feels original, soon Smith’s production segues into a succession of more standard scenes, albeit staged with lots of mimed actions and accompanying vocalized sound effects.

Actress Nina Gilmour – like this theatre company, the product of the union of Smith and Gilmour – is at the centre of the next section as Fantine, the single mother who sends her child, Cosette, away and sells her hair, her teeth and then her body to support her. A few simple, but magical stage tricks enliven the telling of this depressing decline.

You probably know the rest of what happens next: Valjean’s constant string of pseudonyms as he goes back on the run to save Cosette. The relentless Inspector Javert (Mac Fyfe). The cruel and pragmatic Thenardiers (Daniel Roberts and Diana Tso). The love triangle of Cosette (Nina Gilmour again); Marius (Benjamin Muir), a young revolutionary who loves her; and Éponine (Tso again), the Thenardier daughter who loves him.

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Dean Gilmour as Jean Valjean and Mac Fyfe as Inspector Javert.Elisa Gilmour

While the melodramatic material reliably pulls the heartstrings, there’s no fresh take on it here – no new read on the story, its politics or the place of religion within it. The simple script is essentially collectively created. Curiously, though they worked from Hugo’s sweeping 1900-page novel itself (in its original French), Smith, Gilmour and company follow the tale along its most well-worn ruts, the characters and most of the plot points familiar from the musical.

Only occasionally does an unexpected scene appear. The second act, for instance, begins with a debate of sorts between Marius, a republican like his late father, and his grandfather M. Gillenormand (Dean Gilmour again), a royalist – and it’s an enjoyably lively bit.

The context and causes of the Paris uprising of 1832 that is backdrop to the climax of Les Misérables, alas, are not really examined much further after that.

Perhaps I’m the only one who’d like to see a stage version that tried to incorporate Hugo’s voice a bit more, his chatty historical digressions about the Battle of Waterloo, his wonky fascination with the sewers of Paris. But clocking in at two hours and 45 minutes with no songs, you’d at least still expect this Les Misérables to depict Marius’s revolutionary cohorts with more clarity than the musical, not less.

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Nina Gilmour (Cosette), Benjamin Muir (Marius), Diana Tso (Mme. Thénardier), Daniel Roberts (M. Thénardier) and Dean Gilmour (Jean Valjean).Elisa Gilmour

Of course, Theatre-Smith Gilmour is known for its emphasis on the physical side of theatre. There are a few lovely bits of staging, such as Fantine’s courtship and abandonment transformed into a short, dreamy dance, but other scenes, such as the storming of the barricades, are disappointingly drab.

There’s something definitely retro to the overall aesthetic – where movement largely exists in service of storytelling, as a replacement for sets and props or to essentialize character, rather than poetically or to add extra dimensions. (Only stand-out Muir’s frenzied physicality makes the often bland Marius into a more complex character).

English-Canadian theatre is much richer in visual approaches to theatre than it was when Theatre Smith-Gilmour started. Indeed, directors these days seem to have mostly come to the conclusion that stage images are as important as words.

In Les Misérables, however, the physical style is not one tool in a larger arsenal, but almost fetishized as end in itself. It certainly seems reactionary the lengths to which its creators go to avoid including any singing in the show – Cosette, for instance, is nicknamed “the Lark” and her beautiful voice is mentioned multiple times, but we never hear her sing. Hugo’s novel was turned into stage plays innumerable times before producer Cameron Mackintosh’s juggernaut version came along, and perhaps it is about time that theatre companies once again started to bring us new takes on it. But I hope future ones bring something more or different, not less of the same.

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