Monthly Archives: January 2013

Les Misérables (in all media except the novel)

I don’t have very many name-dropping theatrical-performance memories to brag about.  I saw CATS! in Toronto – but I think everyone who lived within a day’s drive and who could afford it saw CATS! in Toronto.  I saw an outdoor performance of The Importance of Being Earnest directed by Linda Carson, but that won’t mean anything to you if you’re not from Kitchener-Waterloo.  I once saw Maggie Smith do a powerful Lady Macbeth at the Stratford Festival (Ontario.)  And I saw Les Misérables in the London West End production, about 9 months after it opened.

I had never read the novel in French or in English and I didn’t have ready access to Wikipedia-type plot summaries before going to the musical, so I didn’t know much about the story or characters ahead of time.  The part that hit me hardest on that first viewing was the story of Éponine’s one-sided crush on Marius and how she struggles with facilitating Marius’s romance with Cosette.  Unfortunately, that was a familiar dynamic to me in my own life at the time.

When I saw a preview of the movie version a few weeks ago, I knew I would want to see it.  So I pre-ordered the highlights album of the movie from iTunes, and didn’t discover until after it had arrived that the highlights didn’t include “Do You Hear The People Sing?” (the song I remembered most clearly from the stage production, due to performing it in an ensemble at camp once) and some other important songs.  Still, though, I listened to the album several times before going to the movie.  That familiarity made it easier for me to take in the story and the acting, without being distracted by differences from another version of the songs.

It’s a long movie.  But unlike The Hobbit, I didn’t think any of it dragged out.  It moved compellingly from event to event and it was easy to see how one thing led to the next.  At the end of it I was exhausted, inarticulate, and out of Kleenex.  Both my cinema companions are insightful theatregoers with more knowledge of the stage show than I had, so I need to credit our discussions (in between the sniffles) for helping me articulate some of the observations below.

The story of Éponine (Samantha Barks) was still very sad, but this time around I didn’t see it as the main story.  This time, I had more interest in the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman)’s struggles to start over and to do the right thing, and even the parallel between his feelings about the Cosette (Amanda Seyfried)/Marius (Eddie Redmayne) romance and Éponine’s feelings.  Everyone who reviews this film comments on Anne Hathaway’s moving performance as Fantine, and I agree.  I liked Russell Crowe (Javert)’s singing voice a lot, but I didn’t find Javert as interesting a character as Valjean.

The colour palette of the film was noticeably limited.  It started from the blue and red and colourless tones of the French flag, echoed by uniforms of guards and prisoners, and continued almost completely in that colourway, with occasional golden lighting.  There was no green at all in the whole film except for some dark-green uniform jackets in one scene.  The venal innkeepers the Thénardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter) had somewhat more gaudy tones, which went along with the playful mood-switch of their song “Master of the House”.  M. Thénardier reminded me bizarrely of Frank N. Furter played by Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was distracting.  For sheer eye-candy, Anne Hathaway and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras) were the loveliest to look at.  I recognised Aaron Tveit’s voice as that of Gabe from the Broadway recording of “Next to Normal”.

In the movie, the puniness of the barricade and the futility of the students’ rebellion were horrifyingly obvious, and the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, sung by Marius in the empty ruined tavern where his friends used to gather, was heartbreaking.  The movie showed the scale of the rebellion and devastation in a way that the symbolic sets of the stage show could not.

It’s still playing all over, and it doesn’t need IMAX or Real3D to feel real.

Christmas in the Mountains

The last couple of years, I’ve taken VIA Rail to Jasper for Christmas.  The Canadian’s only running two days a week this winter instead of the thrice a week that it’s been running for the last couple of decades, but both years it’s worked out that a westbound train leaves Edmonton early Christmas morning and gets in to Jasper station shortly after noon.

If you aren’t already a VIA Rail enthusiast, the trip to Jasper is a good way to try it out.  You can enjoy the comfortable seats in economy class with lots of leg room, fold-out leg rests, and electrical sockets at every pair of seats.  If you’re a larger party, the train personnel will often rearrange other travellers and rotate some of the seats backward so that you can all sit together and face each other.  Economy-class passengers can go to the snack bar or dining car, and you can enjoy the view from the dome car.  It’s probably obvious that I’m already a VIA Rail enthusiast.  On longer trips I take a lower berth, because I love the meals and the comfort of being able to sleep under a duvet while listening to the sound of the train and watching the stars.  I used some of my VIA Preference frequent-traveller points so this trip was free – and with VIA Preference, free means free, not paying a hundred dollars or more worth of taxes and extra charges like on an airline frequent-traveller ticket.

An etiquette nuance that some train newcomers might not pick up on right away is that when you board in Edmonton, you’re joining people who have been on the train all night, and who might still be trying to sleep.  That’s why the lights are off, and even if you’re excited about the adventure, you should try to moderate your voice in the economy car, and go to the lounge car if you want to play games or talk loudly.

The trip to Jasper starts in darkness if you are travelling in winter, but later in the year the whole westbound leg is in daylight.  You travel through the industrial backyards of northwestern Edmonton, then through countryside, along the edge of Lake Wabamun, then stop at Edson and Hinton.  Shortly after Hinton, you start getting glimpses of mountains and water.  There is one short tunnel.  The service manager sometimes points out features of interest.  The historic train station is central to Jasper townsite.  There’s a coffee shop / train giftshop in the station as well as some car rental agencies and a Greyhound bus depot, and there are taxis and shuttles to the hotels and the youth hostel.

Several of the Jasper hotels offer Christmas packages.  The chatty personal welcome that’s common for service-industry people in Jasper is even stronger at Christmas.  I chose the Sawridge Inn last year because it sounded both appealing and affordable, and I liked it well enough to return this year.  Many of the Christmastime guests are families with children, but not all of them.  Activities for children included decorating gingerbread houses and hanging stockings by the hotel fireplace to be filled overnight.  Jasper Park Lodge has a longer list of activities for adult guests, but it’s more expensive.

sawridge dinner

Selection from Christmas-dinner buffet, Sawridge Inn

For Christmas dinner, this year’s buffet offered roast beef, stuffed pork loin, and two kinds of smoked salmon as well as turkey.  The turkey was served with a good bread stuffing, together in a pan with clear “pan gravy”; there was also an opaque thickened gravy served separately.  They ran out of turkey before service had ended, and substituted another meat dish.  I can’t remember seeing a vegetarian entrée.  My favourite of the side dishes was a “partridge in a pear tree” salad, with roasted beets, pink grapefruit, feta cheese, spinach, and a citrus vinaigrette.  The wine list had many options by the glass as well as by the bottle, including more Niagara Peninsula favourites than are often seen in Alberta.

My room package included a breakfast buffet as well.  It wasn’t particularly exciting, but everything I tried was good.  There was a problem with my dinner reservation which was not handled as professionally as I would have preferred, and I haven’t yet had a response to my email about it or my note on the customer feedback form.  In all other respects the hotel service was good and the amenities were superior.  The Sawridge is on the eastern edge of the townsite, a pleasant walk in last year’s mild Christmas weather.  There is a free shuttle to the train station, and a ski bus also stops at the hotel.

Some but not all of the Jasper restaurants and stores are open on Boxing Day.  Stychen Tyme, the yarn, quilting, and needlework store, is open and worth a visit.  The park visitor centre and museum are closed.  Jasper Brewing Company has an assortment of tasty in-house brews, a short menu of good food including a moist bison burger, and an oddly-disturbing painting of an encounter between the child actor Gary Coleman and the Edmonton Oiler Mark Messier.

Bison burger and side salad at Jasper Brewing Company

Bison burger and side salad at Jasper Brewing Company

Painting at Jasper Brewing Company

Painting at Jasper Brewing Company

Will I go back?  I like the idea of not being bound to a Christmas tradition, even one as easy as this, but I would definitely consider it, either with company or on my own.

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I hope you’re all having a great start to the new year!  I’m enjoying some fireworks set off by my neighbours, and socialising with good friends and festive refreshments.  Watch this space soon for reviews of the following.

  • Les Mis – the movie
  • Simply Supper
  • Christmas dinner – no, seriously.