It is a rare event for me to be truly excited when a show hits OC. The 25th Anniversary Production of Les Misérables is one such event, as I wanted to share my all time favorite show with my son, Alex. I wasn’t too sure if a 10 year old boy could appreciate the complex themes of the musical based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, so I gave my son a brief explanation of the epic tale. Les Mis follows ex-convict Jean Valjean (exquisitely performed by Peter Lockyer) as he struggles to find redemption amongst the oppressed poor in the chaotic society of revolutionary France in the early 1800’s. Full of romance, passion, suspense and humanity, it is the story of the fugitive Valjean who is pitted against the self-righteous police officer, Javert (masterfully portrayed by Andrew Varela) in a 30 year struggle to avoid capture.
Turns out this was the perfect show to help Alex begin to understand how complicated, unfair, yet poignantly beautiful the world can be. He asked thoughtful questions about how could a man be imprisoned for so many years just for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family, why were the students upset enough to go to war, and why was the policeman so obsessed with finding Valjean.
One theme I wanted to impress on my young son was how Jean Valjean, a desperate and bitter convict after suffering years prison brutality, is given the opportunity to turn his life around by the victim of his thievery. The Bishop of Digne’s pivotal act of forgiveness inspired Valjean to repent and become a man with great compassion and integrity.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man.
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!
The score of Les Misérables, a masterpiece of theatrical music from French composer, Claude-Michel Schonberg, literally started with a bang and powerful orchestral phrasing to set the tone of the drama to come. For anyone who, like me, grew up attending performances or playing cast recordings repeatedly, the familiar melodies of “I Dreamed a Dream”, “Bring Him Home” and “In My Life” filled the theater like fond memories of loved ones.
This updated production, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, has new twists, orchestrations and video projections depicting the sewers of France and other key scenes. The set design by Matt Kinley, inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, dispensed with the large revolving set, which leaves center stage a wide expanse, sometimes under-utilized. The barricade is as impressive as it is versatile, neatly splitting in two and rolled into the wings during lightning fast scene changes.
The lighting design by Paule Constable succeeds in creating breathtaking tableaus worthy of museum oil paintings, but sorely misses the mark in lighting the downstage during the most dramatic and intimate moments.
Varela’s mesmerizing performance dominates this production, bringing Javert out of the one dimensional obsessed villain stereotype to a complex character where one can actually empathize with his fierce determination. Lockyer’s Valjean grew on me greatly as his character’s journey deepened, and his soliloquy “Bring Him Home” was heaven to hear.
Betsy Morgan’s Fantine was exquisite – powerful, poignant, classically tragic. Max Quinlan sang beautifully as Marius, but seemed to lack the youthful idealism so essential to his being.
Playing bittersweet Eponine, who loves Marius in vain, Chasten Harman, unnecessarily peppers the sorrowful lament “On My Own” with jazzy riffs more appropriate on American Idol than the American stage; however her portrayal of Eponine was touchingly tragic.
The ensemble of ardent students turned revolutionaries, workhouse and street women were all impeccable, giving this classic tale of impoverished French society the beautiful and sordid layers it deserves. This is a richly emotional show filled with anthems, rousing marches, tender love songs and sad laments that will leave you emotionally replete. This is theater at its best.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts – Segerstrom Hall
June 12 – 24
600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, CA
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