Life is strange. Last night saw a glitzy "opening night" at the Princess of Wales Theatre for Les Misérables -- a megamusical that's already attracted a thousand tourist buses here and has played to 40 million people worldwide.
Opening night, indeed. After the years we all lived with Les Miz in the '80s and early '90s, it's like throwing a "getting to know you" party for Honest Ed Mirvish.
So why the new noise? Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shoenberg's musical of Victor Hugo's tale had played nearly a decade on Broadway in late '96 when impresario Cameron Mackintosh fired nearly the entire cast.
Millions were spent to recast and revamp the thing for its second decade -- some in the form of severance to the aging previous cast (many of whom had come to consider their roles a career).
But some was spent tinkering with staging and costumes. Although even co-director Trevor Nunn told Variety, "It would be completely misleading to the average ticket buyer to say that if you saw the show six months ago you must come again and see a whole new show with new songs and a great big happy ending."
The Toronto production, incorporating all the enhancements which debuted on Broadway a year ago, is still the same four-hankie tragedy with largely forgettable songs and an overused rotating stage that, be warned, can cause nausea.
What's different is that this production features the man who defined Les Misérables in its earliest, best days -- Colm Wilkinson as the persecuted Jean Valjean. If that's your only reason to see this production, it's a darned good one.
Wilkinson -- whom many Torontonians know only as the Phantom -- returned to the Valjean role he played in London and on Broadway eager to gnaw on scenery. His brawny, hugely entertaining Valjean came out of the gate all grimaces, scowls and oversized gestures.
He seemed exultant as Valjean the angry, earthy escaped prisoner in the first act. (The second act belongs more to the student revolutionaries and the menage a trois between callow student Marius, the love of his life Cossette and Eponine, the girl who loves him).
And the voice. There was an assured power in it, as if Wilkinson was in a place he utterly belonged. In the second act, as he sang the song Bring Him Home over the sleeping Marius on the eve of battle, his voice travelled all over the high register with a beauty that brought people to their feet in the middle of the play.
The rest of the talented cast do a thoroughly professional job with a musical that's full of thankless heroic cyphers.
Canadian Jessica Snow-Wilson plays Eponine (probably the best role after Valjean) energetically, and fellow Canadian Sharron Matthews is terrifically vulgar as the innkeeper's wife Mme. Thenardier.
And Todd Alan Johnson plays the 19th-century French robocop Javert as stonefacedly as the role necessitates.
Gentlemen, start your buses.
The Colm Wilkinson Fan Club
Canadian Premiere Tour
"Broadway And Beyond The Concert