I'm not sure whether Les Misérables is defiantly and respectably uncontrite as a melodrama or merely unabashedly so. Does this operatic musical rush with such defiant conviction across the mire of melodrama that it doesn't get stuck?
CENTER STAGE The women of Les Misérables.
Decide for yourself as the touring production peoples the barricades through November 6 at the Providence Performing Arts Center. As for me, I'll enjoy being swept along by this whitewater raft of a musical whenever it comes through town every few years. Sentimentality, even this exciting, never killed anyone.
Based on the namesake 1862 novel by Victor Hugo, it has music by Claude-Michel Schönberg (Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre), lyrics by Alain Boublil (translated and adapted for the English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer), and book by Schönberg, Boublil, producer Trevor Nunn (Copenhagen, Noises Off), and Shakespearean John Caird. Premiering in Paris in 1980, it came to Broadway in 1987 — remaining through 2003 — and has been touring periodically ever since, propelled by its initial Tony Award trifecta of Best Musical, Best Book, and Best Score.
As stories go, it has enough variety among characters for widespread identification, from student revolutionaries to sober factory workers, from prostitutes to bourgeoisie. It begins in a Toulon prison, where Jean Valjean (J. Mark McVey) is being released. He has served 19 years: five for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving family and the rest for trying to escape. His freedom has its limitations, though. By law he must show yellow identification papers that reveal he is on parole, and as such he will remain a pariah whom few will hire.
Pressed by bitterness and his situation to steal again, he does so from a compassionate bishop who has given him food and shelter. He is quickly caught by the police and brought to the cleric, who lies and says that the silver candlesticks were a gift to the pauper. Shamed into an honest life by this second chance, he hides the fact of his parole, changes his name and eventually becomes a model citizen.
After eight years he has become the wealthy Monsieur Madeleine, a factory owner and mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, no less. Prosperity has changed his appearance so much that Javert (Andrew Varela), the policeman who paroled him and is thereby responsible for his capture, no longer recognizes him when they meet. However, though Javert becomes suspicious when the mayor displays extraordinary strength in rescuing a man under a cart, reminding him of Valjean, the escaped convict risks his freedom once again with yet another act of selflessness.
Needless to say, over the three hours required to convey the 1200-page novel, further injustices, dangers to good people, and benefits to evil people abound, as do a wealth of powerful songs to match the large emotions portrayed. The songs blend operatically into the dialogue, a la recitative.
As a factory boss, Valjean was responsible for the unjust death of Fantine (Betsy Morgan) and the probable dire fate of her young daughter Cossette (Maya Jade Frank), so he becomes her guardian. The child was being carelessly cared for by the comically villainous Thénardier (Richard Vida, Shawna M. Hamic), whose eventual revolving poverty and wealth represent that of the country. The hopeless conditions of factory workers and the unemployed are conveyed by the desperate "At the End of the Day," as unrealistic hope is by Fantine's "I Dreamed a Dream" and Cosette's "Castle On a Cloud."