One of the great ironies of watching Les Miserables in 2015 is realizing that the poor in this country today have no barricades to storm, no great cause to march for, no banner-waving leader to lift them out of their economic misery.
Perhaps that’s part of the deep appeal of the musical version – a pop version, you might say – of the Victor Hugo novel. Though Hugo’s poor stay down-trodden and die by the score at the barricades, they manage to do so with heroic romance and high purpose that seem lacking in real life.
All of which is to say that Cottage Theatre’s new production of Les Miserables is wonderfully engaging, despite a few warts. This is a big, challenging show for a little community theater, and they’ve pulled it off in style.
Les Mis tells the story of Jean Valjean, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread, imprisoned at hard labor for 19 years, and finally released – only to violate his parole and become a fugitive, pursued by the unyielding police official Javert. The tale is a study in sin, forgiveness and redemption, set against the political battles of 19th century post-revolution France.
The 1987 musical is by Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, who also wrote Miss Saigon, Martin Guerre and The Pirate Queen. It’s sung through, and if you haven’t heard at least one song from it, you’ve probably not been listening to much around you.
The strong centerpiece of the Cottage Theatre show is Lanny Mitchell, a theatrical pro whom we last wrote about here as the Balladeer in October’s Assassins. Mitchell is a delight to see and hear, a big and generous performer who takes us into the darker corners of Jean Valjean’s soul and back again into the light.
Ward Fairbairn is solid as Javert, the determined and ultimately tragic policeman, and fine performances are turned in by a number of players, especially Melissa Miller as Cosette and Mandy Rose Nichols as Eponine.
Alan Beck’s direction is fast moving and to the point, but the show doesn’t seem well designed for the theater’s thrust stage. Too many songs are sung from far downstage to the center of the room, leaving much of the audience looking at the back of the singer’s head. And the sightlines were such on the spare, beautiful set – credited to Beck, Janet Whitlow and Steve Ward – that a substantial number of people in the audience simply couldn’t see a significant early scene that occurred upstage.
But such quibbles wash away entirely during every big ensemble number, from “One Day More” to “Do You Hear the People Sing.” Les Mis is sad, beautiful, moving and lovely. It runs through May 3; details at CottageTheatre.org.