By Lesley Stevenson - St. Mary's Episcopal School
Les Misérables, playing at the Orpheum Theatre September 13-18, fundamentally alters the traditional view of musicals. The show could almost qualify as an opera – dialogue is limited to rare emotional outbursts – and its multiple themes explode from rich lyrics that narrate not just the life of main character Jean Valjean but the human experience as a whole. One walks away from Les Mis feeling not merely the contentment that comes from witnessing an escapist or reflective musical but the deep emotional fulfillment arising from a work of pure beauty.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” penned Catholic writer Thomas Merton. On the grand scale of art on the grand scale of time, our minds easily forget that art does not limit itself to frame-able objects and sculpture. By definition, art is personal and valued chiefly in the beauty and emotional response an audience finds in it. With this view in mind, it is unquestionable that Les Mis is anything but art. The production is so overwhelmingly, achingly beautiful that one must simultaneously experience the pangs of heart wrenching grief combined with the ecstasy of glorious song.
Truly this has been Les Mis’s mission for the twenty-five years of its record-setting run. The show ultimately describes life, its joys and its tragedies. In the end circumstance, though not resolved, is alleviated by remembrance of happiness and the small moments that propel one through the daily drudge.
The story is not particularly fantastic: Jean Valjean is released from a 19th century French prison where he served time for stealing bread, evades parole, and lives his life both paying for and escaping his previous wrongs and examining how his actions affected those nearest to him. But its lack of fantastical plot is what drives the relatable experience that makes Les Mis incredibly universal.
Mirroring the extremities of life, Les Mis engrains its vision in the audience with show-stopping songs that honestly take one’s breath away. During the final notes of “Bring Him Home,” a song revered for its challengingly high-pitched melody, Valjean’s final highest notes unassumingly soar from the stage in a lyrical wonder too inspiring to describe. The audience could not even begin to applaud actor J. Mark McVey as they breathlessly waited for the song’s completion. Betsy Morgan as Fantine and Chasten Harmon as Éponine outshine almost everyone else, executing such stunners as “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” and “A Little Fall of Rain” precisely and boldly with almost no props to assist in the telling of their stories. Their glorious vocals perfectly complete Les Mis in the finale song, reviving the tune heard during Fantine’s death and in “On My Own” with a grippingly delicate harmony that seals the loose ends created in Valjean’s life story. I myself could not help tearing up – not because the story depressed me, solely because the music was beyond the beauty of anything I had witnessed before.
So too does the show abound in seemingly minor moments that haunt the audience for the duration of the show: melody lines and even lyrics repeat, images define the tone for several scenes, and simple glances permanently disrupt characters’ interactions. The redesigned set of this 25th anniversary production both contributes to the show’s humble story and its spectacular new vision. Ordinary designs of houses, battlements, and carts take on new qualities when stylistically created to enhance the rustic beauty that now serves as the show’s guiding theme.
Inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, author of the original book Les Misérables, the backdrops are a visionary sequence of watercolor creations that seamlessly tie all props together and blend from one scene to the next. Certain moments, cleverly and artfully crafted, extend the idea of paintings to the entire stage; dramatic lights illuminate silhouettes just so, rich colors of backdrops and costumes saturate the image, and characters conform to their scenery as if it were real. Taken out of context, short snapshots could serve as paintings themselves like tableaux to tell the story of Jean Valjean.
Truly it is most difficult to convey the entire sense of splendor that Les Misérables imparts. Everyone with whom I have spoken since attending opening night has agreed that it is art beyond the sense of a straightforward musical. Though it is an emotionally draining three-hour performance, the length packs in moments too precious to forget. Do not miss this chance to witness an assuredly thought-provoking – if not life-changing – work of astounding beauty.