WAKE UP! Scheff (center) belts it out.
As melodramas go, the 1980s stage production of Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel Les Misérables was and remains king (or weepy, sentimental queen). Over the twists and turns of its nearly three hours, we get innocent women in jeopardy, an honorable man imprisoned and then hounded after his release, all culminating sadly, sentimentally, operatically. I’ve loved most productions I’ve seen. So welcome, Ocean State Theatre Company and your foray (through October 27) into the 19th-century criminal injustice system.
Directed here by Amiee Turner, the story is told in more than two dozen songs, with spoken-sung transitions, emotionally propelled by Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music. The original French libretto was by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, and the English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It was adapted and originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird.
We are in early 19th-century France, following the tribulations of Jean Valjean (Fredric S. Scheff). Imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed the starving child of his sister, he is released after 19 years. But he has to reveal his shame to every potential employer, so he gets taken advantage of when he does find work. In fury he tears up his parole papers and slips into society under a false name, to be pursued relentlessly by a police inspector, the self-righteous upholder of public order Javert (Kevin B McGlynn).
A kindly bishop gives him food and shelter for a night, but the embittered man dismisses the gesture and steals some silver. Dragged back by the police, he is stunned when the bishop tells them the valuables were a gift and even gives him the remaining candlesticks. Remorseful, Valjean turns his life around.
Eight years later we see him as a mayor and successful factory owner, in which capacity he is responsible for a terrible injustice: Fantine (Lindsie Vanwinkle), a young woman with an illegitimate child to support, is thrown onto the street because she won’t sleep with the factory foreman, and she soon resorts to prostitution. When she is on her deathbed, a remorseful Valjean swears that he will raise her daughter as his own. The grown-up Cosette (Meagan McNulty) ends up falling in love with a young university student revolutionary, Marius (Tommy Labanaris), who in turn has a young woman, Eponine (Alyssa Gorgone), fall for him, futilely because she is beneath his station.
All is not grim. Broadly and deliciously hilarious are the Thénardiers (JP Sarro and Nicole Paloma Sarro), a larcenous innkeeper and his equally shameless wife. “Master of the House,” which they sing as they prance about the inn gleefully picking pockets, is a comic relief highpoint of the show.
There is no end of terrific songs. For heart-swelling inspiration there are “Red and Black” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” by the revolutionary students, and “One Day More” by the company, ending Act One. For poignancy there is “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” by Marius, mourning his missing comrades, and Javert’s “Soliloquy,” as he wrestles with his conscience over pursuing an honorable man. The list could go on.