Now in its seventeenth year and rumoured finally to be coming to the end of its long, long run, Les Misérables' newest cast change has, under the direction of Ken Caswell and the musical direction of Björn Dobbelaere, freshened, uplifted and generally enhanced the piece.

Jean Valjean's search for salvation and his feud with Inspector Javert is a story known to most readers, so let's concentrate instead on the performances.

Michael Sterling has been appearing in musical theatre productions for as long as Musical Stages has been published, so we know his work quite well. Over the years he has achieved a gravitas and additional power to his voice which he brings to the role of Jean Valjean with great success. It is a moving and believable performance, setting the standard for the rest of the cast. His encounter with The Bishop, a nice interpretation by Alan Vicary, is convincingly desperate and the 'Soliloquy' powerful. We always wait for 'Bring Him Home' as the true arbiter of those who take the role and Michael does not disappoint .

Jérôme Pradon assumes the uniform of Javert and gives a different slant to the character. His Javert has that touch of insanity brought about by years of frustrated failure to nail Valjean and he brings it out magnificently in his two big solo moments, from the soaring ending of 'Stars' to the despairing howl of miserable defeat in 'Soliloquy'.

Rosemary Ashe and Stephen Tate as the Thénardiers are just superb. This is theatrical teamwork at its best. During 'Master of the House', while riveted to Stephen's classically witty, swaggering interpretation, you also have an eye on Rosemary's endlessly pottering Madame, keeping her eye on him whilst performing bits of business which enhance, not distract. When it's her turn, she grabs the moment and then he obviously enjoys reacting to her. Great stuff and very, very funny.

Hadley Fraser makes his West End debut as Marius and has the presence and the voice to make him believable. As Cosette, Helen French is also making her West End debut and perhaps this is why the combination of the two is so fresh and lively. Cosette is often seen as a bit of a wet character, but not this time. She is sparky and Marius is equally so. Sophia Ragavelas, an affecting and strong-voiced Eponine completes the trio with a touching and real performance.

Paul Manuel is back as Enjolras and has a commanding presence and a fine voice to lead his student army. It is, as one would hope, an authoritative performance. Amongst his students, David Ashley as the heavy-drinking Grantaire is the first one to deliver the 'Ooh and aah' line without making me flinch and all the more convincing for that.

Harry Jardine played Gavroche on the new cast's first night and he is an excellent little actor with a powerful set of lungs. And to prove there is no shortage of able, child actors, both Little Cosette and Young Eponine were of an equally high standard.

With Ken Caswell back in the director's chair this time, the piece has been tightened in many small ways. There are no longueurs anymore and the show zips along at an even and satisfying pace. If there is any truth in the rumour that Les Misérables will be replaced by The Sound of Music next year, catch this production quickly!

  Lynda Trapnell
Musical Stages
Late Summer 2002