"Les Mis" was not the first Mega-musical I saw as a young person. That would be "Cats". But it's the first one that I can still respect as an adult, and it's probably the mega-musical I've seen the most.
Which is not to say I don't know the flaws, just that I love them as part of what makes up a grand mix of epic storytelling, iconic singing, romance, pursuit, revolution and pathos. So when a friend suggested I catch the new production playing in Sydney, it didn't take a long time to say yes.
And even up in the cheap seats near the top of the balcony, it impresses with a fair bit of big-ness. This is a different staging to the classic Trevor Nunn-directed, John Napier-designed production, but the new direction by Laurence Connor and James Powell and new set design by Matt Kinley makes interesting new choices - it's minus the revolve and the one large setpiece of the slums-of-paris-that-transformed-into-the-barricades, but with some clever spectacle added instead (From the opening moment, where the familiar chain-gang instead becomes a galley ship with the various prisoners as rowers). It's not exactly done subtly, but then again Les Mis is not the most subtle show. Up in the cheap seats I did end up alongside a ten year old seeing it, presumably, for the first time, who was a tad distractable but obviously paying enough attention to ask important questions like "who's General LaMarque" (the answer, of course, being "it barely matters, it's only important he's dead because ... plot").
The performances are a mixed bag. Simon Gleeson feels awfully young to be playing Valjean and is never really all that convincingly aged up, but he does sing well and has a nice solid presence in the monologues. Hayden Tee's Javert has the intensity but is very much a black villian rather than someone tortured by his own concept of punishment and redemption. Patrice Tipoki's Fantine is suitably touching and tortured in her twenty-minute slide into doom. Lara Mulchay's Mme. Thenardier largely steals whatever bits of the show are around when she's on-stage - she's consistently hilarous (her usual counterpart Trevor Ashley was out the night we saw it - his understudy sang well but did not quite match her in grotesqueness). Kerrie-Anne Greenland is a touchingly misguided Eponine - although Euan Doidge's Marius is so extrordinarly drippy and soppy that he does make her look a bit idiotic for being infatuated with him. Emily Langridge is the poor victim stuck with boring Cosette, and fails to do anything interesting with her, largely because I suspect there is nothing you can do with her beyond sit there and look and sing prettily (Marina Prior wasn't able to do a lot with Cosette either back in 1987, so my suspicion is it's a bloody awful role).
Elsewhere in the ensemble there's a few moments of over-enthusiastic acting (particularly among the solo lines in the opening - just because you have only one line in a show, shoving your most over-the-top-acting into it isn't going to make that one line more important). Still, the combination of score, spectacle and story holds up pretty strongly with a fair chunk of touching moments, rousing ballads and big sings.