The King and I versus Les Miserables

JAMES CROOT
Last updated 05:00 23/07/2014
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Cameron Mackintosh Limited

REIMAGINED: Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) go toe-to-toe in Les Miserables.

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Fairfax AU
WHISTLE A HAPPEN TUNE: Lisa McCune as Anna Leonowens in The King and I.

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Revivals of two much-loved musicals are vying for your entertainment dollar in Melbourne this winter. James Croot compares an eastern monarchy with French misery.

THE KING AND I

Inspiration: 1944 novel Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, which is in turn derived from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens, governess to the children of King Mongkut of Siam in the early 1860s.

Location: Princess Theatre (until August 31)

Ticket Prices: From A$80 (thekingandimusical.com.au)

Target Demographic: Despite some risqué moments (there's even a bare bottom), the lavish costumes, bright, upbeat tunes and adorable poppets mean this suitable for audiences of all ages. That said the archaic sexist and borderline racist attitudes contained within may mean it will be less popular amongst those generations used to a more enlightened world.

Plot: A strong-willed, widowed schoolteacher, Anna Leonowens, arrives in Bangkok, Siam (later known as Thailand) at the request of the King of Siam to tutor his many children. Cultural clashes quickly ensue.

Acting, ****, Often battling some gorgeous if cumbersome costumes, Lisa McCune (TV's Blue Heelers) shines as the headstrong Anna, more than proving she can "whistle a happy tune" and move with suitable grace and elegance. Former Hollywood star Jason Lee was missing in action the night I attended (and he's now been replaced with a less than ethnically obvious match Lou Diamond Phillips) but his understudy Chris Fung was a revelation, at turns suitably petulant and  powerfully persuasive. The multi-ethnic ensemble was reflected in the range of accents and voices on show.

Music and Songs, **1/2: With a plot that clearly feels like a dry run for their later hit The Sound of Music (and Disney's Beauty and the Beast), the lack of memorable lyrics or tunes in this near 50-year-old effort is now painfully obvious. Whistle a Happy Tune and Shall We Dance? are the highlights, but the rest just blend into one.

Choreography, ****: Plenty of toe-tapping numbers with the eastern equivalent of chorus girls a go-go. High-energy abounds and everything looked slick and seamless.

Sets and Lighting, ****: Incense fills the air and glittering gold, regal red and bright orange dominate the palette. The sets gave an appropriate air of opulence.

Costumes, ****:  Unsurprisingly opulent (especially the King's wardrobe), while McCune's corsetry looked painfully accurate. The chorus's outfits were surprisingly risqué and revealing but certainly enlivened the spectacle.

Overall, ***1/2: A solid and at times spectacular production of what now feels like a supremely dated musical. Likely to be enjoyed more by an older audience, what it lacks in the music and lyrics department it almost makes up for in the way of sheer spectacle.

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LES MISERABLES

Inspiration: Based on the French historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862. This latest version influenced by Tom Hooper's 2012 cinematic vision.

Location: Her Majesty's Theatre (currently selling until end of October)

Ticket Prices: From A$45 (lesmis.com.au)

Target Demographic: The musical is fairly universally loved already but thanks to Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway et al  in the 2012 movie it has gained an even larger fan base. Could be considered a little too dark and/or bawdy for youngster though.

Plot: Ex-convict Jean Valjean attempts to turn his life around while being relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert, who is convinced he will fall from grace again.

Acting, ****1/2: New Zealand-born Hayden Tee adds nuance and subtlety lacking in Rusty Crowe's filmic take on Javert, while Simon Gleeson is a suitably charismatic and steely-determined Valjean. Other standouts include Patrice Tipoki's Fantine and Lara Mulcahy's Madame Thenardier, but to be honest the whole chorus is deeply impressive, especially 10-year-old Ben Jason-Easton as the scene-stealing Gavroche.

Music and Songs, ****1/2: Recalibrated, reorchestrated and revitalised, the score is even better than before. Gone are the synthesisers that gave away the show's early 1980s origin and discarded to history the show-stopping (in a bad way), annoying Little People song. In their place come more naturalistic, emotional conveyances of feelings through song, while still retaining those goose-bumping inducing crescendos and harmonies.

Choreography, ****1/2: The tale's emotional rollercoaster is reflected in the significant and sometimes sudden shifts in tone from dark drama to bawdy carousing. Master of the House is a triumph of staging and timing, while other power ballads benefits significantly from slick work.

Sets and Lighting, ****1/2: Replacing the iconic but clunky rotating stage with more flexible options (while also adding Hugo-inspired period backdrops) is a masterstroke. Not only does it now allow the calculated chaos of a song like Master of the House to be front and centre, but it also creates jaw-dropping moments like the scene in Paris' sewers where you really feel like the characters are underground.

Costumes, ****: The show has always displayed an impressive attention to detail but now splashes of lighter and brighter colours have been added to the ubiquitous blacks, blues and browns. Madame Thernadier's gravity defying outfits are the highlights.

Overall, ****1/2: To paraphrase one of the revolutionary leaders Grantaire "I am agog! I am aghast!... It is better than an opera!" Yes, with its retooling and reimagination this latest version of Les Miserables certainly makes it a far more vibrant evening's entertainment. What used to get lost and tonally and thematically muddy in the second-act now feels vital and part of the action-packed narrative. And yet it's still retained its ability to be one of the most heart-breaking and emotional musicals ever.

James Croot travelled to Melbourne on Qantas with the help of Tourism Victoria.

- Stuff

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