Coming of age

Chico High becomes one of the first California high schools to tackle the famous Les Misérables

<i>LE MIS</i> WHIZ <br>Gregg Hammer practices singing the part of Marius, the romantically led-astray young revolutionary in Victor Hugo’s <i>Les Misérables</i>.

Gregg Hammer practices singing the part of Marius, the romantically led-astray young revolutionary in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

Photo by Tom Angel

Les Misérables
Harlen Adams Theater, CSUC, Nov. 20-23, 7:30 p.m., Sun., Nov. 24, 2 p.m.

There was a time—probably a time when people read more and had fewer distractions tugging at them—when the sudden discovery of Victor Hugo’s pages-long Les Misérables was something fantastic.

There it was: a novel opening up one of history’s most exciting periods (the Paris uprising of 1830) filled with young love, extreme suffering, noble sacrifice, and—above all—a compelling moral stance, with clearly defined villains and heroes and clearly delineated divisions between the wretched poor and the comfortably well-to-do (the good and the bad among both).

Reading such a book, a high-school student found him- or herself taken wholesale into a world where love was possible, where sacrifice was noble, where actions mattered, and where social forces could be understood. Life would surely grow more complex as that young reader aged, but the intense righteous motivation and moral certitude of Hugo’s world would continue to haunt him or her for a long time.

Coming from an age in which a disinterested cynicism regarding the larger world seems more and more common among the young, I was surprisingly moved when I ventured a week ago into Chico High’s tiny band practice room and found myself surrounded by orchestral sound and impassioned, surprisingly well-articulated singing. This was the real thing—young people of precisely the right age thoroughly caught up in Les Misérables, or rather in the flamboyant, melodramatic—and yet somehow rather extraordinary—musical version of Hugo’s book.

Directed with patient, dogged intensity by CSU Music Department Chair Mike Bankhead, the 12-player orchestra looked tiny but was supported by an impressive invention—a machine, kept on tempo by Jeff Childs, that provided the additional parts and could swell the sound as much as one needed. The young singers were also impressive in their ability to convey passion, their versatility, and in their avoidance of the blurred, run-together speech one so frequently hears among the young.

Paul Sandberg, a bass who has been working with Music Director Lyn Bankhead for barely a year, sings the heroic Jean Valjean with incredible strength and range (remember those high notes?). And the others look no less good: Anna Pope as Fantine, Daniel Roberts and Britteny Lane as the vicious, self-serving, and always-able-to-survive Thénardiers, Alex Bowles as the repressive (and repressed) policeman Javert, Gregg Hammer as the romantically led-astray young revolutionary Marius, and Beth Knight as Valjean’s ward (and Marius’ beloved), Cosette.

With Lyn Bankhead’s encouragement, Chico High has become one of the first California high schools to take on Les Mis since its release for amateur production last June. When I asked her if the somewhat shortened version were bowdlerized, she said, “Not in the least. All they’ve done is left out some stanzas and looked for other ways to shorten the score.” She admitted that some productions in more religiously conservative areas had been cut according to local censors’ wishes; this production has not.

A couple of days later, I stepped into the Veterans Hall and watched a full rehearsal. I was interested in seeing how Marty Gilbert’s sets would be used to substitute for all the elaborate machinery of professional productions—especially on the relatively small Harlen Adams stage. No problem. There were already three or four two-level sets mounted on casters and several smaller ones, all easily moved by the show’s large cast. The actors, singling softly to save their voices, moved about the floor with professional ease. It will be an exceptional show, I think, stirringly presented by—yes—a local high school.

I asked a chorus member sitting next to me if she saw any similarities between Les Misérables’ world and our own. I was thinking, of course, of the 35 percent or so of Tulare County children who go to bed hungry. I was thinking of the despair-breeding, minimum-wage job-traps Barbara Ehrenreich describes in Nickled and Dimed. I was thinking of a plutocracy run by the self-serving corporate descendents of Thénardiers. I was thinking about an immense prison population and about a secretive government that doesn’t hesitate to use brute force and PR-friendly lies to keep itself in power. I was thinking about a society kept fearful by politicians and media, and about the 15,000 or so people it murders yearly.

“No,” she answered, “I don’t make any connection.”

I was left pondering. If there’s a Victor Hugo among these kids, I thought, what sort of song about our time, about 2002, will he or she sing—30 years from now?