It’s been about 11 years since I saw Les Misérables. I actually saw it four times. During my time at Texas A&M University, I was a member of this organization that hosted the national touring musical companies coming through the giant metroplex known as College Station. That said, I was a volunteer usher that showed people to their seats and made sure no one jumped off the balcony. As payment, we got to watch the show for free. Les Misérables ran for a week and a half and I saw four of those performances.
My oh my have times changed.
The new, modern production of Les Misérables is playing at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco through August 26 and keeps the essence of the classic musical that was brilliantly sculpted by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil — but has tweaked it for the 21st century. First off, they have retired the groundbreaking turntable set design and upgraded it to more cinematic pieces of scenery and digital effects. Although I hold a special place in my heart for that totally awesome turntable, but I have learned to move on and I think you should too.
Nonetheless, when I watched this brand spankin’ new production of one of my favorite musicals of all time, I was overwhelmed with a plethora of emotions that I felt all the way from the crown of my head to the chambers of my loins. I was happy, excited, sad, angry — a variable cornucopia of musical euphoric fuckery (that is a good thing).
That said, I thought I would bullet point all the reasons why you should jazz run to the Orpheum Theater to watch this made over version of Les Misérables.
The story holds up well. Based on the Victor Hugo novel (by the way, I used the bathroom in his apartment in Paris), the story is simple yet layered and it’s thematic elements of struggle, emancipation, obsession, love and revolution have endured since the musical opened in 1985. It all centers on a dude who stole a loaf of bread during a time when France was about to go through a revolution. More than that, it introduces us to our hero Jean Valjean (the unbelievably manly and enchanting, or “manchanting” Peter Lockyer). As the core of the story, he is should be one of the greatest heroes in the world of pop culture alongside people like Atticus Finch and Rocky. He has so much heart, determination, is totally selfless and once he sings “Bring Him Home” you’ll be ugly crying in no time.
The music is pretty damn good. Unlike the dated synth ’80s beat of some musicals like Phantom of the Opera, the songbook of Les Misérables combines storytelling and excellent musical composition flawlessly and still remains a benchmark of what the modern musical is supposed to sound like.
Fantine can’t catch a break. Although she is beautiful and earnest, Fantine (played by Betsy Morgan in this production) is such a tragic character. All she wants to do is to provide for her daughter Cosette, but she goes through so much crap to do so. First, the factory she works at turns on her. All her co-workers hate on her and her boss wants to bone her. She doesn’t comply and she ends up on the street where she sells her nice necklace and her hair. If that’s not bad enough, she goes into non-Pretty Woman prostitution. This ultimately leads to her — spoiler alert — tear-jerking death. Homegirl can’t catch a break!
Javert is straight up gangsta…and kind of crazy. The villainous Javert (Andrew Varela) is on the constant hunt for Jean Valjean. He is obsessed to the point of insanity. Nonetheless, he looks and sounds like a menacing combination of Cap’n Crunch and Professor Severus Snape.
There are cute little kids! There are little tykes in this musical! How can you resist the adorableness of kids singing? And singing well! I so want to be Gavroche.
My dear Eponine. *Sigh* Another tragic character. (Well, characters like this come with the territory considering the musical is called Les MISERABLEs). In any case my homegirl Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman — who has a very crisp and enriching, poppy voice BTW) is in love with a clueless Marius (Max Quinlan) who is in love with the grown and beautiful Cosette (Lauren Wiley). She hooks them up because she just wants to see him happy and what does she get in return? (SPOILER ALERT) She gets shot during the battle at the barricade. Well, at least she fit in an amazing, yet depressingly titled solo “On My Own” and a heart-wrenching death scene that always gets the audience sobbing. She is just another victim of unrequited love.
The lovely Thénardiers. Amidst all the depression and Debbie Downer-ness, there are the Thénardiers, a husband and wife team who own an inn (played by Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic) and are a duo of con-artists. And they just look dirty — but they are damn funny. And they survive throughout the end of the play so they must be doing something right!
French revolution prostitutes are a must. They add a certain promiscuous panache to the musical. There’s nothing like a filthy hooker to make you smile and think, “My life ain’t that bad.”
Good homework for the movie. The musical makeover clearly has a connection to the movie version of Les Misérables starring Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Russell Crowe coming out this Christmas. There are striking similarities to what I saw in the movie trailer and what I saw on stage: the set design, the costuming, and just the overall vibe. It’s a very clever way to connect the two…and the trailer alone gives us a glorious cry. Both are emotional porn at its best.
Les Misérables plays at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco through August 26. Purchase your tickets at SHNSF.com Tell them Dino sent you. They won’t know what you’re talking about, but it inflates my ego.