Victor Hugo would approve♦
Devotees of Les Miserables are understandably curious to know how the Walnut Street Theatre’s current re-imagined production stacks up against the wildly successful 1985 Broadway original. On that score I’m afraid I can’t offer any help: I’d never seen Les Mis before. Having read and adored the original Victor Hugo novel twice (in English and then in French)— another respect in which I suspect I differed from the rest of the Walnut’s opening night audience— I cringed at the notion of seeing this idealistic saga strained through a Broadway musical meat grinder. I frankly lacked the imagination to conceive how Hugo’s classic celebration of the human spirit could survive the transition to a popular commercial stage.
Guess I should have had more faith in the human spirit. What’s remarkable— about the Walnut’s production, at least— is how well Hugo’s message comes across. In some respects the show succeeds better than the novel, because Les Miserables concerns the power of community, and attending theater (unlike reading a novel) is a communal activity.
The first act is one long and painful litany of man’s exploitation of his fellow man— in a prison, a factory, a whorehouse and an inn whose proprietor specializes in fleecing his customers. Absent any apparent countervailing force, the disgusting innkeeper Thénardier exploits even his own wife and daughter, and the relentless Inspector Javert pursues his righteous but heartless vision of justice with the assurance that his definitions of right and wrong will never change. Their powerless victims, like atomized grains of sand, seem incapable of banding together for their own mutual protection.
One soul at a time
Yet here and there the seeds of a revolution are being planted— not in political speeches and pamphlets, but in small acts of conscience that, once performed, become contagious and irreversible. The pitiful ex-convict Jean Valjean, saved from Javert by the selfless intercession of the Bishop, himself becomes a Christ-like figure, touching hearts and inspiring otherwise hopeless souls at the bottom of the social heap, one at a time.
By the end of the second act the wretched of Paris have banded together not merely in mutual benevolence but even to sacrifice their lives for abstract principles at the barricades of France’s 1830 revolution. Valjean destroys Javert not by force of arms— which Javert is adept at handling— but by two phenomena Javert can’t fathom: doubt and kindness. Thénardier and his shrewish wife, sensing a change in the prevailing social winds, fall prey to the power of embarrassment as they scurry to recast themselves in light of the new, more humane order.
Barack Obama’s Jean Valjean candidacy
Whether Hugo was a perceptive social visionary or a hopelessly unrealistic optimist I leave for another discussion (although it’s worth pointing out that the once-ridiculed Barack Obama triumphed over more conventional presidential candidates by harnessing the financial power of 1.5 million small donors, against which his opponents with their mere handfuls of millionaire supporters proved no match). My point here is that Hugo’s vision comes across almost as powerfully on stage as it does in his novel. This despite the fact that Claude-Michel Schönberg’s operatic score contains very few hummable melodies, and Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics are too often obvious and pedestrian. (Or are you excited by rhymes like you/true, apart/heart, above/love, Jew/do, and forget/Cosette?)
Much of the credit goes to the score and the script, of course. But the Walnut Street version benefits also from strong production values, vivid sets— Thénardier’s tavern, the Paris barricades— and strong singing voices from Hugh Panaro as Valjean and Paul Schoeffler as Javert on down.
Above all, director Mark Clements displays an unusually deft hand at coordinating large crowd scenes. The scene at the Paris barricade brings the Delcroix painting Liberty Leading the People to life. The rousing “Master of the House” number— in which Thénardier (Scott Greer), his equally gross wife (Dawn Spence) and their hapless customers cynically celebrate his ingenuity at swindling those who come through his doors— is especially well staged. Isn’t it gratifying to live in a time and place where we have better things to celebrate than mutual exploitation?
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