I have a wonderful, joyous history with “Les Miserables.” It was really the show where I first discovered the magic of the theatre. As a high school student, I remember attending my first viewing of the show in 1989 at the Curran Theatre and sitting in the last row for about $15. I enjoyed the show, it had that cool turntable thing, and I bought the Cosette t-shirt which I still have, but I didn’t know what the hell was going on. So I went again a few months later and said to myself I really need to focus and listen to every single word.
My second viewing of “Les Miserables” was where it became my favorite show. I remember being mesmerized by that particular cast, names like Michele Maika, Craig Oldfather, Gary Beach and television actor Rider Strong became my personal movie stars. I even remember attending a Golden State Warriors game when Rich Hebert, who was playing Jean Valjean at the time, sang the national anthem. I might have been the only person in the arena who was positively giddy about seeing him through my binoculars with his buddies, as they sat courtside yucking it up. Others might have been more focused on that Larry Bird guy, but for me, Hebert was a legend.
Other viewings have come my way over the years, probably about 10 altogether. Other great productions in San Francisco, a crappy one in Fresno, and some of the most sublimely magical productions at New York City’s Imperial Theatre have cemented the show as my favorite musical. Yessir, I love that kid that has become the show’s worldwide icon, created by Hugo’s illustrator, Emile Bayard.
I’ve come to believe “Les Miserables” is the perfect musical, and even though the 25th anniversary production, at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre through Sunday, Aug. 26th, has been trimmed and polished a bit, it has not lost an ounce of its soul-stirring passion since its 1985 premiere in London.
The story, based on Victor Hugo’s epic 1,200-plus page novel, tells the story of Jean Valjean (a masterful Peter Lockyer), a man unjustly jailed for stealing bread for his sister’s hungry child. Upon his release from prison, Valjean is finding it hard to acquire work because of his ex-convict status. As he muddles through a world that is more cruel than kind, he encounters a kindly Bishop (James Zannelli), who believes in his goodness even though Valjean breaks his trust in a grand way. And as the Bishop gives Valjean a second chance at life, Valjean denies his parole status, becomes a mayor, befriends a tortured and sick Fantine (Betsy Morgan in a painfully desperate turn), raises her daughter who becomes the beautiful loner Cosette (Lauren Wiley), and joins the student uprising to protect Cosette’s love interest Marius Pontmercy (Ian Patrick Gibb).
If you are familiar with the show, I would be remiss not to mention other iconic Les Miz characters: The crass and vulgar Thenardier (Timothy Gulan) and his thrashed wife (a refreshingly vulgar Shawna M. Hamic), the street wise and empathetic Eponine (a golden-throated Briana Carlson-Goodman), fiery leader Enjolras (Jason Forbach) and the justice-driven officer Javert (a goose-bump tour-de-force by Andrew Varela).
On the technical side, the show has ditched the turntable and in came a whole new look and feel, Hugo’s paintings, which were projected on the set. The paintings are a lovely touch, especially considering I had no idea that the guy was a painter too. The images are terribly effective, bringing Hugo’s literary opus deeper onto the stage, his masterful presence changing as the different moments manifest themselves into brilliant tension on a passionate color palate. From a magnificent snowfall to the depths of the sewers, the look and feel of the stage is breathtaking. The paintings played very well with a constant supply of stage fog and the effectiveness of Paule Constable’s dark yet vivid lighting design.
While the new staging may change the way the show is viewed, it still has maintained its aura when it comes to Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s masterful score, along with Herbert Kretzmer’s heart-wrenching lyrics.
Lockyer’s Valjean is angrier than many portrayals I have viewed, which is extremely effective. His presence and voice are jaw-dropping, finding many moments of fire and passion as he journeys through those crucial first 12 minutes of exposition. Varela’s vast talents allow for a perfect foil, a dazzling and tortured turn for a man who works tirelessly to maintain the legal order. Javert is a man who is unable to live with himself when he discovers his life is owed to his only hate. Varela’s rendition of “Stars” is unlike any live version I have ever heard.
While Wiley and Gibb’s discoveries of love could have featured a tad bit truer discovery, the use of their vocal talents together and individually were top-notch. Gibb found his stride beautifully using his gentle and smooth pipes to maximum effect. Numbers such as “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and the brilliantly written and discovered “A Little Fall of Rain,” where he was matched masterfully by Carlson-Goodman, were filled with ethereal beauty.
“Les Miserables” is a show I will always associate with that first discovery of an art form that would become my life. It is timeless and timely, a show about finding a voice against oppression and injustice. It’s a show of true love and redemption, with a surreal hit parade cascading off the stage directly into the heart of the audience.
And as an added treat, because of technical difficulties on the night I went, I got to hear the prologue three times in the span of 20 minutes. For a hardcore Les Miz fan like myself, tell me that isn’t super cool.
Almost as cool as being at a Warriors game where Rich Hebert sings the national anthem.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW TO GO
SHNSF presents the 25th Anniversary production of “Les Miserables”
Based on the novel by Victor Hugo
By Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
The word: A phenomenal re-invention of the classic and iconic production
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through August 26th
Tickets range from $31 – $99
The Orpheum Theatre
1192 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94102
For tickets and information, visit the SHNSF official website