In the 80's my mother took me to London, just after Les Misearables had opened. We couldn't imagine how anyone could concoct a musical from Victor Hugo's novel, so we opted, instead, for Starlight Express, a decision I will always regret. Sunday afternoon I saw the matinee of Les Mis, and rarely had such a intense, exhilarating, piercing, thoroughly somber yet affirmative experience in all visits to the theatre. Suffused with pathos for those less fortunate : the trod upon and impoverished, the exploited and degraded (such as beggars, thieves, prisoners, sex workers, factory workers) Les Miserables invokes the name of God repeatedly, yet considers our resistance to the spark of divinity that might actually save us. It suggests that there might be less problem with the sinners of the world, than the hubris of the self-righteous.
Les Miserables picks up the story of Jean Valjean, as he is completing a 15 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. His nemesis, Javert, has already decided that Jean belongs to the class of people that are beyond redemption, and declares their paths will cross again, soon. Valjean quickly learns there is little work available to ex-cons, and winds up taking refuge in a monastery. Following a thwarted attempt at pilfering, he is overcome by an act of magnanimous charity. He vows to never again dishonor himself by transgression, and thus begins his odyssey towards spiritual self-actualization. Throughout the rest of Les Mis, he offers grace to a world awash in jaundice and cynicism. Dubious as this sounds, creators Alain Boubil (Book) Claude-Michel Schonberg (Music) and Herbert Kretzmer (Lyrics) carry it off exquisitely. Honestly, there is so much suffering and loss (and a couple of episodes dangling perilously close to melodrama) you wonder how they manage, but it all feels so harmonious, so genuine, it sweeps you into extravagance of emotion. It sparks our yearning for the sublime. It kindles optimism and grief without stooping to manipulation or cheesy contrivance.
I have never read the source material, so I cannot speak to omission, but I can tell you Les Miserables keeps us on track despite an involved narrative and a Dickensian gathering of characters. I imagine director Liesl Tommy's decision to modernize the milieu with contemporary costume and Scenic Designer John Coyne's jagged, frantic, chaotic trappings (suggesting we are all prisoners) will arouse some debate. Personally, I found the comparison a cast member made to facilitating Shakespeare with modern acoutrements to be insightful and accurate. Gendarmes in riot gear only helped to italicize the timelessness of Hugo's themes. Tommy's orchestration of this enormous, masterful, poised, and utterly magnificent cast is to her credit, their individual energies coalesced into something rapturous and profound. My follicles tingled. My ears flushed. My heart leapt. What a splendid, unforgettable performance.
Standouts in this formidable cast included : Morgan Mabry Mason, Alex Organ, Steven Michael Walters, Christie Vela, John Campione, Laura Lites and Jemma Kosanke.