No despair: Live Arts soars with Les Misérables

The ensemble cast (Tim McNamara, Lynn Thorne, Jon Cobb, Elizabeth Howard, Jayne Gallagher and John Ashley pictured) of Live Arts’ Les Misérables lifts the epic to great heights. Photo: Martyn Kyle. The ensemble cast (Tim McNamara, Lynn Thorne, Jon Cobb, Elizabeth Howard, Jayne Gallagher and John Ashley pictured) of Live Arts’ Les Misérables lifts the epic to great heights. Photo: Martyn Kyle.

I was 10 years old when I saw Les Misérables on Broadway, and my dislike of the show was immediate and intense. I wasn’t prepared for my total immersion into a world where destitute mothers became prostitutes, innocent men served on chain gangs and girls my age toiled barefoot in the streets. Oh, and then everybody died. No thanks.

To be fair, nuanced interpretation of emotional bankruptcy was not my strong suit in third grade. (Plus I forgot some crucial plot points. Yes, the show is a tearjerker, but it’s got happy moments, too. Yes, a lot of people die, but not everyone.)

As an adult, I can recognize the Les Mis brand of despair as author Victor Hugo’s appeal for hope and human compassion. The main character, Jean Valjean, who was in jail for two decades because he stole bread for his starving sister, saves four innocent lives in as many scenes on the path to social and moral redemption. The students who instigate revolution on behalf of the starving poor do give birth to an indomitable spirit.

But if, as a child, I had seen Live Arts’ version instead, I might have avoided trauma in the first place.

Les Mis is a big show, a sung-through musical that spans 17 years, a mash-up of social strata, a bloody insurrection, a wedding and just about every vocal note you can think of. (Claude-Michel Schönberg’s music is beautiful but complicated.)

To pull off the show’s emotional magnitude and complexity, Live Arts focuses on the people and music. You have to imagine the sewers, the gore, the sucker-punch effects that shock and awe. The result is a stripped-down version that still packs a punch and asks you to engage your whole mind in the telling.

The set is incredibly simple: a velvety drop of dark curtains from the second story rafters and a few stepwise platforms to give the sweeping stage height. The effect is grand, just a touch austere. Clever lighting, tightly orchestrated blocking, and evocative set pieces—think hospital beds, slot-backed chairs and a giant dangling cross—suggest illustration for each scene without overwhelming its characters.

Spare and meaningful details include exquisite costumes and key props, like Cosette’s bucket and baby doll. A four-person orchestra lights up Schönberg’s touching musical score, and the effect of live strings in such an intimate space brings gorgeous emotional texture to the show.

Director Matt Joslyn and musical director Kristin Baltes stuffed loads of local talent into their 33-person cast. Hank Fitzgerald, who plays Valjean, does a magnificent job traversing an emotional spectrum as vast as his vocal range. (For a story that draws not-so-subtle lines between good, those who sacrifice themselves for others, and evil, those who condemn the innocent to suffering, its chief protagonist is remarkably conflicted. Though he’s most clearly pursued by the merciless police inspector Javert, Valjean also suffers the persecution of endless self-recrimination.)

Though I found Fitzgerald’s emphatic anger and guilt in the first few scenes overbearing, his reincarnation as champion of the downtrodden, and tender, tight-lipped father is potent and powerful. By the final scene, he had me weeping into my popcorn.

Alice Hoover’s Fantine also brought me to tears (of course). Lindsay Goodrich, who plays Eponine, maintained a casual ‘its-cool-you-don’t-love-me’ hopelessness without veering into melodrama. Nine-year-old Violet Craghead-Way, who shares the role of Young Cosette with Elena Witt, had a voice and grace as pure as a bell.

Feisty Gavroche (Finn Falconer) is another child trapped on the filthy Paris streets, and he’s the perfect icon for the band of idealistic, appallingly young- looking men-at-arms who plan to start a revolution. Though determined Enjolras (Daniel Owen) leads with unflagging commitment to the cause, Ian Charles’ Marius truly shines. His love with Cosette (Patricia Coughenour) is charming, and their duets are particularly lovely, but of course love does little to lift the threatening mood.

That mood is propelled by Chris Estey’s Javert, whose rigid posture, iron-gray muttonchops and consistently powerful voice are as unyielding as his blind faith in the law. Orbiting Valjean and the students like a moon, he threatens—and thankfully fails to realize—total cataclysm.

The show’s notable spark of unsettling danger comes from Jon Cobb, who plays duplicitous innkeeper Thénardier. His razor-sharp commitment to self-preservation is simultaneously slimy and hilarious. Elizabeth Howard’s Madame Thénardier is more than his comedic match, and their masterful version of “Master of the House” is a rousing, tongue-in-cheek celebration of all that’s wrong with the world.

In fact, the most powerful scenes in Live Arts’ Les Mis are the ensemble numbers. “One More Day” and “Do You Hear the People Sing?” not only showcase the incredible range and talent of the performers, they give the show the epic heft it needs to make revolution come to life.

That sense of stifled, surging power propels Les Mis and its characters into the unknown future. They commit to higher principles—freedom or government, money or love—irrespective of the outcome, marching toward change and meeting it head-on.

By giving us the emotional guts and just a suggestion of 1800s Paris, Live Arts’ production invites us to bring our whole selves to the story. Not with the horror of explicit violence, as my 10-year-old self might fear, but rather with the opportunity to imagine ourselves on those dirty streets, sharing tears and laughter in that intimate space and leaving more connected to each other than when we first arrived. It’s a very small step toward the discovery of our own compassion and Hugo’s truth that “to love another person is to see the face of God.”