When Orion Theatre Company’s production of Les Misérables opens on February 6th at Code’s Mill on the Park in Perth, it will take its turn in participating in one of the most famous stories of musical theatre history, and in a story perhaps as old as civilization itself.
Heidi Stepanek and Peter Dixon, producing directors for Orion, have brought together one of their most talented assemblages of actors, singers, and musicians ever, and are preparing to create a unique and powerful staging of this iconic musical that will entrance, move, and bring audiences to their feet. They intend nothing less than to present a theatrical experience that would do the show’s original creators proud.
Les Misérables has caused a stir, and strong emotional reactions since Victor Hugo’s novel was published in 1862. Noted contemporary authors such as George Sands and Baudelaire dismissed it (Rimbaud’s mother blamed it for corrupting her son), and the Vatican banned the “socialist tract,” which was publicly burned in Spain. But when the book was first published it was a massive public success. Thousands of copies were sold to those who could afford the installments and lending libraries sprouted up among workers who couldn’t.
120 years later the musical adaptation would open in London to largely hostile reviews, but the run sold out in a few days. By now 60 million people have seen the musical, and there have been as many as 60 film versions of the novel shot in countries as diverse as the USSR (1936), Mexico (1943), Egypt (1944), Japan (1950), and India (1955). The musical itself has even been sung in Icelandic and Mauritian Creole. It has been voted the greatest musical of all time in a public poll conducted by JemmThree – a new online radio station dedicated to musical theatre.
Spanning a period from 1815 to 1832, Les Misérables tells the story of Jean Valjean (Peter Dixon) against the backdrop of revolution in 19th century France. Imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving son, Valjean is freed from a slave labor camp only to be branded as an outcast because of his criminal record.
His life is changed when a kindly Bishop (Murray Hodgins) invites him into his home for a meal and a night’s lodging. Given an opportunity, and instructed by the Bishop to change his life, Valjean eventually becomes a business owner and mayor in the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer.
Still pursued by Javert (John Marshal), a police officer obsessed with his own personal notions of justice, and right and wrong, Valjean promises a dying young woman, Fantine (Lauren Bailey), that he will care for her young daughter. He rescues young Cosette (Zophia Lentz) from an abusive and greedy couple named Thénardier (Lawrence Evenchuck and Barabara Seabright-Moore), who dote on their daughter Éponine (Madison Miernik) but abuse Cosette.
Nearly a decade later, Valjean and Cosette (Emma Hans) reside in Paris, where student revolutionaries led by Enjolras (Kyle Booth) plan to seize power following the death of General Lamarque, the only government leader with feelings for the poor. Cosette falls in love with a student named Marius (Andrew Galligan), who in turn is loved by Éponine (Keegan Carr), her childhood rival. As the people prepare for civil war, Javert continues his resolute pursuit of Valjean, determined to return him to prison after nearly 20 years of freedom.
Many elite critics suggest that musicals are bright up-tempo entertainments meant to distract or comfort with pleasures both aural and visual, always presenting obstacles that can be overcome. Like many of the great musicals, Les Misérables is certainly not that. For example, the incredibly tragic character, Fantine, is forced into selling her hair, and then her body, singing:
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather.
I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living …
In this musical most of the cast dies, including virtually all of the handsome, fired-up French students who carry out the 1832 revolt known as the July Rebellion. These young people believe they exist in a unique moment, a moment when history seems poised for great change, when giving their lives might result in a better world. We watch them die and are told that, at least for those living at the time of the story, their deaths will make no difference.
However, as audiences, we are left with the sensation that the suffering of these worthy people was not for nothing. It is as if it benefitted us — we who live in some version of that better world, the one they sacrificed their lives for. The theatergoer feels swept up in that long arc of a moral universe as it bends toward justice.
And we are meant to feel that Fantine’s terrible suffering was not in vain: her daughter Cosette grows up to join the ranks of good people (including us) who want to leave the earth a better place than they found it.
One of the most affecting scenes in the show comes near the show’s beginning as Valjean is astonished and moved by the Christ-like charity of the Bishop who takes him in, and forgives him for attempting to steal silverware, making him a present of it and protecting him from arrest (“I have saved your soul for God”). Valjean sings a soliloquy directly to the audience (“Why did I allow this man to touch my soul and teach me love?”), eyes blazing with new knowledge and resolve. The Prologue itself, which this scene concludes, is worth the price of admission alone, and the show has barely begun.
The scene also sets the stage for the story’s central themes of forgiveness, redemption, and the question of what justice is, and fans regularly describe the story as a universal one of “eternal truths” and societal “archetypes;” however, Jean Valjean’s problem is his relationship with a government that not only misuses and perverts its power, but facilitates and reproduces a society that is rigidly divided into haves and have-nots, and rife with injustice. Granting that Jean Valjean’s saint-like quest for personal salvation forms the redemptive core of the story, perhaps the world-wide popularity of this work also echoes the on-going frustration with governments’ historical persecution of innocents, and their obsessive zeal for crushing freedom and democratic movements. But that’s another story. Meanwhile, local audiences have a unique opportunity to see what all the fuss has been about over the 152 years of this awesome story’s history.
You may have seen the show before, or perhaps the recent Hollywood film version, but you likely won’t have experienced a presentation as powerful – due in part to the intimacy of the staging, and the historical atmosphere of Code’s Mill – as this latest installment in the story of Les Misérables.
~Performances of Les Misèrables will take place at Code’s Mill on the Park, located at 17 Wilson St. E. in Perth, on February 6, 7, 8, 13, 14, and 15 at 8 p.m., and February 9, and 16 at 2 p.m.
Ticket prices range from $24 for a single reserved seat to $160 for a table of 8, and all seats are $15 on opening night (plus HST and ticket vendor fees). Tickets are available through Tickets Please (in Jo’s Clothes at 39 Foster St.), by calling 485-6434, or by visiting www.ticketsplease.ca.
For more information on the show, visit www.oriontheatre.ca.