Sunday, March 29, 2009

Les Miserables

by Pa Rock
Drama Critic

Les Miserables is a fantastic musical that has been around several years and won numerous awards. And although it is becoming firmly established as a theatrical classic, today was the first time that I have had the opportunity to see it staged. Les Miz has been playing in Phoenix for a couple of months, and its run has been extended twice to accommodate the throngs who wanted to wanted to get in but were unable to obtain tickets.

One of the radio ads said "You've never been this close to the barricades!" I was able to land a seat on the second row - dead-bang center of the theatre - not more than twenty feet behind the barricades. My perch was so close to the stage that I could see the spray leaving the singer's lips as they hit their majestic musical swells!

Les Miserables is a musical retelling of Victor Hugo's monumental novel of the same name. Hugo's 1,200 plus pages are pared down to a stage production of just three hours. The story is an epic struggle of good versus evil and ultimate redemption. It is set in France after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 and leads up to the ill-fated Paris Uprising of 1832. It is not, as often thought, a tale of the French Revolution. That bit of history occurred several decades before story of Les Miz begins.

The central character in this morality tale is Jean Valjean, a man who, as the play begins, has just completed serving nineteen years in prison at hard labor for stealing a small amount of bread to keep his sister's son from starving. He is paroled, and promptly learns that his status as an ex-con keeps him from receiving a decent job or fair wages.

Valjean tears up his parole papers and soon steals a silver place setting from a bishop who tries to befriend him. When he is caught fleeing the bishop's quarters with the contraband silver, he tells the police that the bishop gave it to him. To his surprise, the bishop concurs with his lie and enables the man to go free - with the admonition that he has just purchased the man's soul for God. His challenge is to go forth and do good.

Jean Valjean, who never completed his probation and thus remained a wanted man, becomes a successful politician. While keeping his vow to do God's work, he befriends a dying prostitute and promises to raise her daughter, the beautiful Cosette. He keeps his promise to the prostitute, all the while dodging the relentless Javert, a police official who has made capturing him his life's obsession.

If the Valjean-Javert dance sounds familiar, that is probably because it was resurrected in the 1960's in a television show called "The Fugitive," and again in the 1990's in a movie of the same substance and name. No matter how much good Dr. Richard Kimball did, that awful Lt. Philip Gerard remained fixated on bringing him to justice.

There were several standout performers in the Phoenix Theatre's production of Les Miserables. Douglas Webster was a dynamic Jean Valjean. His acting was passionate, and his voice ranged from delicate to thunderous. When Webster traversed the stage, he owned it. Jenny Hintze was the dirty-faced and streetwise Eponine who easily outshone the lovely Cosette. She was compelling and appealing - and her voice was magnificent, with a force that could break windows in the cars driving by out on McDowell.

Beau Heckman and Terey Summers were show-stoppers. They were Monsieur and Madame Thenardier, a pair of coniving street louts who were always on the lookout for a quick franc. They were Eponine's parents and the evil guardians of Cosette when she was a child. The Thenardier's were lovable rogues who could have easily been the creations of Charles Dickens. Their masterful comic relief gave the audience a much needed reprieve from the serious business of persecution, poverty, and war.

Les Miz has a wonderful score, yet it contains few songs that people are likely to hum or sing (or even remember) as they leave the theatre. But it is a show that would be very difficult to forget. The company performing at the Phoenix Theatre have done a terrific job of bringing this great musical production to the stage in the Valley of Hell. I was truly transported to nineteenth century Paris within spitting distance of the barricades!

This was a wonderful afternoon!


Pinkie LaFevre said...

Several times in Paris (I"ve been there seven times) with students, I've walked the streets near where the barricades were placed. Paris has changed since the 1830's, thanks to Haussman's new street plans, but the basic areas are still evident.
I love the musical and have the CDs. I play it in the car when I'm feeling the world has let me down. Great music, great book, great play. I saw it in Springfield at the new Hammon's theatre there. So glad you got to see this. What took you so long!

Pa Rock's Ramble said...

I had a choice a couple of years ago while in London of doing a side trip to Paris or Edinburgh, and headed north to Scotland. Next time it will be Paris - although Edinburgh was wonderful!

I guess the reason that it took me so long to see Les Miserables is that I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. I am not a fan of Phoenix, AZ, but the theatre offerings here are numerous and usually very good.

I have three degrees out of SMSU or whatever the hell it is called now, but haven't been in Springfield in several years. Last time I was through there, everything was named either after John Q. Hammons or his lovely bride, Juanita K. Is it the Juanita K. Center for the Preforming Arts of which you speak, or has something newer been erected? I know it's not the John Q. Center, because Bob Hope opened than big tin barn over thirty years ago, and the last concert that I saw there was Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge. Kris now has grown children by the wife who followed Rita.

Pinkie, do we know each other?

Rocky Macy
Goodyear, AZ

Brenda from Mac County said...

Sorry, Rock - I was logged in as my nom de plume, Pinkie... LOL -- This is Brenda.
You may be right, it is probably Juanita. It had a circular stage and was new, then, and replaced the old playhouse that was much loved by people there.

Pa Rock's Ramble said...

Pinkie LaFevre - I love it! I will never think of you as Brenda again!