25th Anniversary LES MISERABLES Storms the Stage in San Francisco

25th-Anniversary-LES-MISERABLES-Storms-the-Stage-in-San-Francisco-20010101

A technically reimagined Les Misérables stormed the stage of San Francisco's Orpheum theatre for its 25th anniversary victory lap, electrifying a wildly enthusiastic audience and keeping them on The Edge of their seats for the entire performance.  Based on Victor Hugo's 1862 magnum opus that dared to detail the plight of the Parisian poor and the desperate attempt to occupy the streets of Paris by students demanding justice for them, Les Misérables could hardly be more relevant today, given the cries for class justice from every corner of the world.  Brought to life by a heart-stirring and unforgettable musical score and exceptional lyrics, this production is quite simply extraordinary.  Playing now through August 26, Les Misérables is an amazing theatrical tour de force that you will not want to miss.

Though the musical deals with the large, overarching themes of class injustice and the poverty it creates -- as well as redemption, love and the futility of revenge -- it does so within the intimate stories of a handful of characters whose lives are caught up in the snare of the social structures of their day.

The story centers on Jean Valjean, who is played by Peter Lockyer with grit and solemn grace. When we first meet Valjean, he has spent 19 years in prison because he stole bread for his starving sister's family. 

Released, but marked for life with papers that condemn him to third-class citizenship, his bitterness threatens to curdle into life-long hatred at the cruelty and corruption he comes up against at every turn.  He falls deeply into despair, as well as more thieving, only to be redeemed by a bishop's act of unexpected kindness.  With this small flake of mercy his life is changed for good.   

Lockyer is brilliant as the tormented and then changed Valjean who assumes a new, secret identity and becomes a successful factory owner and town mayor.  When his secret is revealed he is dogged by police officer Javert (played with stalwart tenacity by Andrew Varela), a man determined to do what is "right" and hold Valjean accountable for his crimes. The two will spend the remainder of their lives battling for their version of righteousness.

Fantine (an ethereal Betsy Morgan) works in Valjean's factory.  She is bruised by life and a man who left her penniless and pregnant.  Morgan sings the now classic, "I Dreamed a Dream," her voice subtle, haunting and beautiful. When her fellow factory workers find out that she has an illegitimate child they demand that she be fired.

Valjean, who leaves her fate in the hands of his foreman, sees the error of his ways when he later discovers that Fantine had to resort to prostitution in order to care for her daughter, Cosette (Lauren Wiley).

A word about the youngest members of this dazzling cast:  little Cosette, young Éponine and the child Gavroche -- Abbey Rose Gould, Zoe Eliades and Marcus D'Angelo respectively -- were brilliant.  Especially moving was Gould when she sang "Castle on a Cloud," which encompassed the young Cosette's dream for a better life.

Valjean promises the now sick and dying Fantine that he will personally care for Cosette, who is in the custody of the Thénardiers, a shady couple who run the local inn.  Shawna M. Hamic and Timothy Gulan play the unscrupulous innkeepers who are not above adding water to the wine and working the poor Cosette almost day and night while their own daughter, Éponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman), is treated like a princess. Their number, "Master of the House," provides some of the only comic relief to the dramatic seriousness that is "Les Mis" - and they are brilliantly smarmy.  For the proper coin, they are only too happy to give Cosette away to Jean Valjean.

As the years pass by and the situation for the poor of Paris worsens, a group of students plot and plan to carry out a revolution.  They are led by Enjolras (played brilliantly by Jason Forbach) and Marius (the dynamic Max Quinlan) the latter of whom falls madly in love with Cosette, and she with him, while Éponine pines away for him unnoticed. Act One's eleventh hour, pull-out-all-the-stops, huge ensemble number, "One Day More" was, in a word glorious.  Go see the show if only for this song.

Act Two takes us behind the barricade as the student revolutionaries prepare to fight to the death for justice. All too soon, they realize that most of them will die that day.  Amidst the horror lies the hope that love will prevail for Marius and Cosette – a hope that Jean Valjean is determined to keep alive.

New orchestrations by Chris Jahnke (with additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker) highlight the beautiful, thematic quality of Schönberg's score, which musically weaves a story of enduring beauty, passion and meaning.

As the revolutionaries are killed, Valjean finds that Marius, though injured has survived and carries him away to safety.  It is here that the technical changes in the show really hit their mark. The audience was enthralled by the projections that appeared on the scrim (by Fifty-Nine Productions) which accentuated the drama of the moment, making it seem as if the characters were running through the streets of Paris and down into the cavernous dark sewers below. The projections are matched by the new set design by Matt Kinely who took the paintings of Victor Hugo as his inspiration.  As with the show, these painted backdrops are relentlessly dark and stained with gloom.  Kinely never let us forget that there's a reason the show is called Les Misérables.

That said, the 25th anniversary production has the wonderful subtitle "Dream the dream," which boldly proclaims that even though the show paints an unflinching picture of poverty and the harsh conditions it creates, Les Misérables also shows how mercy, love and a resolute spirit can engender hope in the human heart.  The cries for class justice still ring out today.  They are a clarion call to live into hope and the day when the dream we dream becomes a reality.

 

Les Misérables
Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg,
Original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Adapted from Victor Hugo's novel, Les Misérables
Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell
Now through Aug. 26th
www.shnsf.com
Photo courtesy of Deen Van Meer

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Linda Hodges Linda Hodges is a freelance writer who has been covering the vibrant and exciting San Francisco Bay Area theater scene for the past two years. A dedicated theater aficionado, Linda first became involved in the dramatic arts while in college, becoming one of the first “techies” at her school to be voted into Delta Psi Omega, the National Theater Honor Society. She holds a Masters in Theological Studies from Pacific School of Religion and maintains that theater, at its best, is a religious experience! Linda is currently working on her first novel and, as always, is looking forward to another opening night.


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