Les Miz in our midst
An impressive local production of über-popular Broadway musical
When the musical adapted from Victor Hugo’s great 19th-century novel of love, injustice and revolution, Les Misérables, opened in London in 1985, critics denounced it as a “lurid Victorian melodrama” and “a witless and synthetic entertainment.”
But audiences simply didn’t care that it turned a classic novel about the struggles of the wretched of Paris and Inspector Javert’s obsessive search for the convict Jean Valjean into musical melodrama. They loved Les Miz, and it’s gone on to become one of the most popular—and profitable—musicals ever created.
It calls for a huge production of the kind normally mounted by professional theater outfits—more than 30 scenes, numerous sets, a pit orchestra and a huge cast. But it’s also been successful—despite its complexity and size—among amateur groups such as California Regional Theatre, which is staging a production at the CUSD Center for the Arts. There are 41 actors in the cast, and some of them play as many as six or seven roles, which gives you an idea of the size of the thing.
The play is operatic in form, meaning the music tells the story and what little dialogue is used is also sung. There’s a limit to what a string of songs can accomplish when it comes to transmitting the plot of a zillion-page novel, so if Les Miz the musical doesn’t quite do justice to Les Misérables the novel and some plot points are unclear—just who, for example, is the General Lamarque mentioned so prominently during the barricades scene?—it’s no fault of the actors and crew. They didn’t write the play (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg created the original French-language version).
All in all, it was an impressive staging, one that was rewarded with a standing ovation when I saw it Sunday afternoon. All the major players—Vince Chambers as Valjean, Steven Oberlander as Javert, Kaelyn Hughes as the prostitute Fantine, Austen Strine as Marius, Nicole Thayer as Cosette, Makayla Thompson as Eponine, Dashiel Provost as the revolutionary Enjolras, and Megan Schwartz and Brandon Morgan as the greedy inkeepers Madame and Monsieur Thénardier—sang their parts robustly but with great sensitivity when required. They were fortunate to have the excellent local soprano Pam Thornton as their vocal coach.
I especially enjoyed Schwartz and Morgan, who brought colorful flair and rich physical playfulness to their comic-relief roles as the innkeepers. The stage lit up when they were on, and the big first-act scene in the inn (“The Innkeeper’s Song”) was one of the best in the show.
Credit choreographer Kate Reeves, costume designer Laura Thompson, set designer Christopher Burkhardt and lighting designer Kevin White for the quality of this scene and the half-dozen others with similarly strong production values, culminating in the amazing barricades scene that dominates the second half. It’s no mean feat to create a believable war scene on a sound stage, but this group brings it off.
A bit more about the costumes: As you can imagine, a production with 41 actors and many more roles—sailors, convicts, soldiers, factory workers, prostitutes, beggars, wedding guests and maids, not to mention the principal parts—places big demands on the costumers. I don’t know how many outfits Thompson and her crew had to create, but it had to be at least 60. Well done, folks.
Finally, the unsung heroes of the production were neither backstage nor onstage. They were the 13 musicians and conductor Ryan Heimlich located in the orchestra pit. Their job was to provide the instrumental music for some 30 songs performed one after another over nearly three hours, with only one break at intermission. It had to be grueling, truly a musical marathon, but it was evidence of the kind of dedication and spirit that make these community-theater productions so enjoyable.