Les Miserables is a play that I have been aware of for what feels like my entire life without knowing a thing about it. With the 25th anniversary production currently playing in San Francisco and a film adaption not far off, though, fans of the musical began cropping up in my midst, ready to paint it for me in the broadest of strokes: poor people in old-timey France; based on a thick Victor Hugo novel; strong operatic singing; something about “redemption.” Further details were shrugged off.
Specifically, it follows Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer), a once-thief who, after a religious experience of sorts, escapes his parole to become a do-gooder while evading the authorities (Javert, played by Andrew Varela) who ceaselessly pursue him. Among his good deeds are adopting Cosette (Abbey Rose Gould), the illegitimate daughter of a factory worker (Betsy Morgan) who dies after turning to prostitution. Much of the story surrounds grown-up Cosette’s (Lauren Wiley) relationship with Marius (Max Quinlan), a young student who takes part in the doomed 1832 June Rebellion against the constitutional monarchy in power at the time.
Sure enough, though, the particulars do feel somewhat beside the point. Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel did not musicalize Hugo’s novel in order to give a history lesson, but rather to enunciate certain timeless struggles – social control with individual morality, class-consciousness with love, hedonism with belief in the future, institutional violence with revolution – that were just as dominant in early industrial France as in the Reagan/Thatcherist 1980s.
At the rate we are going, Les Miserables promises to remain equally relevant for the remainder of human history. So long as the singing stays spectacular and new productions offer a little something more to set them apart from previous ones, people will line up for tickets.
As for the singing, my minimal experience with opera leaves me to make only the blunt remark that it seemed really, really good. Morgan, Lockyer and Varela each deliver a whopping, chandelier-rattling soliloquy or two – performances that, two hours later at the play’s end, the audience sprung to its feet to applaud as if they had just occurred. Even the child actors made an impressive (and supremely adorable) show.
For its X-factor, the 25th anniversary production awes with a singularly impressive set and scenery design. An astonishing number of modular façades, gates, bridges and barricades – more than it seems could possibly fit backstage – glide in and out before luminous, impressionistic background projections based on Hugo’s own style of landscape painting.
These backgrounds are capable of subtle directional flow; they creep in and pan out to exaggerate the perception of the actors’ movement through space. While this “special effect” is distinctly cinematic, it does not feel like a concession to the major studio spectacle due to hit screens this December. To the contrary, it underscores all the irreplaceable facets of the stage that made Les Miz the phenomenon that it is in the first place.