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An impassioned, intimate Les Miserables takes the stage
The Village Theatre in Issaquah takes the mega-musical Les Miserables and mounts it on a small turntable-like stage, spinning out an intimate, moving drama that captures Victor Hugo’s post-revolutionary France.
With nonstop songs of love, hope, revolution and redemption, the towering themes of Les Miserables are as relevant today, in our age of social unrest and change, as they were when Hugo wrote his classic 1862 novel.
Perhaps that’s why productions of this musical have become so popular. Les Mis, as it as become known, adapted by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, has become the longest-running musical in history, as well as the third longest-running Broadway show, with tuneful hits like “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Do you Hear the People Sing,” and “On My own.”
But if you’re worried that viewing this epic, which spans several decades of French history, might be over-melodramatic or ponderous--or you’ve got Les Mis overload and don’t want to suffer through another version like last year’s 2-hours-and-40-minute-long blockbuster movie, fear not. The Village Theatre’s delightful new interpretation of this classic will leave you laughing as well as crying, because it enthralls and inspires, without being too heavy-handed.
That’s a tall order, of course. From the moment the wretched prisoners on the chain gang appear onstage in the prolog scene, singing “Look Down, Look Down,” the audience is brought face to face with the monumental struggle of ex-convict Jean Valjean, the iconic hero of Hugo’s epic.
As anyone familiar with the many new versions of the musical (or the Oscar-winning movie starring Hugh Jackman) knows, Valjean, a burly French peasant, is imprisoned five years, for the petty crime of stealing bread to feed his sister and her starving son, and isn’t freed for 19 years, after repeated escape attempts.
The plot follows Valjean’s journey to elude the law -- and his nemesis, Inspector Javert, who sees good and evil as black and white, and criminals as irredeemable.
Greg Stone, tapped by Village Theatre Director Steve Tomkins for the leading role, which he’d played with a touring production of the musical in 1997, and on Broadway, acts the part with strength and authority.
Meanwhile, Eric Polani Jensen, who switches gears from having recently acted the compassionate Tevye in Fiddler, plays the dogmatic, unforgiving Javert.
The dynamic between Stone and Jensen carries the show, with both delivering powerful vocals.
“I know the meaning of these 19 years, a slave of the law,” speak-sings Stone’s Valjean, with piercing poignancy, in the scene that sets up the crucial tension between him and Javert, who will hound him forever.
“Five years for what you did,” responds Javert. “The rest because you tried to run—Yes, 24601.”
Stone does a fine job as Prisoner 24601, evolving from a petty criminal to an honest man. He has to assume a false identity in life to survive, however, eventually becoming the owner of a factory and the mayor of a town. But Valjean’s most noble role, as the father of an adopted daughter, whose mother Fantine works in his factory, is Stone’s best: It’s the role where he learns to love, or as Hugo puts it, see “the face of God.”
While Hugo’s main characters are men, some of the strongest characters in this production are females, like Eponine, (Kirsten DeLohr Helland), daughter of the dishonest inn keepers, the Thenardiers, and best friend of Cosette, Valjean’s adopted daughter. Helland delivers one of the best song renditions, a winsome “On My Own,” the famous song of unrequited love. If you don’t know the tale by Hugo, Eponine is tragically in love with Marius, who in turn is in love with Cosette.
And as welcome comic relief from the tragedies woven through Les Mis, some of the best performances come from those lovable scoundrels, the Thenardiers, (Nick DeSantis and Kate Jaeger), who coyly boast their dastardly deceits and dissolute habits in the tavern scene and song “Master of the House.” The production is enhanced by delectable mid-century French costumes, so good that some of the Victorian Steam punk and other anachronistic renditions, including an Eponine wearing dreadlocks, are playful additions rather than being distractions.
The smaller setting of this local production gives a more intimate view of the characters than the typical touring company’s production while still capturing all the majesty of the original Broadway version. Rendered simply with effective use of spotlights and simple sets, Village Theatre’s excellent new production spotlights Hugo’s timeless characters, good and evil, with the passion and depth. Sound, lighting, and scene design, as well as very fine live orchestral music, bring to life the fervor of a revolutionary age, making for a performance you won’t forget.
Les Miserables plays until Jan. 5 in Issaquah, then moves to Everett until Feb. 2.
Francesca Lyman is a writer and journalist living in Kirkland. Her work can be found at francescalyman.contently.com.