Twenty-four years after making its English-language debut in London, the musical Les Miserables has finally reached regional theaters, with PCPA Theaterfest one of a handful of companies given the rights to stage it this season. Roger DeLaurier’s swiftly moving production allows us to experience this familiar piece in a fresh way, eschewing the spectacle of the original staging in favor of a relatively simple, direct, and honest approach that speaks straight to the heart. Prepare to be moved to tears.
Victor Hugo’s novel, as cleanly and cleverly adapted by Claude-Michel Schnberg and Alain Boublil, combines satisfying storytelling with expressive music and thematic richness. The epic tale of reformed convict turned selfless hero Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert, the rigid and revenge-minded police officer who stalks him, is one of suffering, redemption, and the awesome power of mercy. The surface story-which describes a society marked by intolerance, inequality, and injustice-depicts a political struggle, but the subtext is spiritual.
Scenically, this is a minimalist production, with basic props such as a bed or table wheeled out when necessary. DeLaurier boldly has his actors belt out some of the show’s best-known arias while standing on a bare stage, relying on their own expressive power to hold the audience’s attention. They get a huge assist from Frederick Deeben’s fantastic costumes, which are drab and tattered or ornate and colorful as appropriate. The gamble pays off enormously, especially when Christine Alvarez as the lovesick waif Eponine expresses her loneliness and longing in her signature song, “On My Own.”
Sam Zeller is a compelling Valjean; he conveys the tormented character’s anguish while successfully navigating the part’s enormous vocal demands (under the musical direction of Callum Morris). Erik Stein is an equally impressive Javert; he underplays the role, portraying the character as tightly wound rather than overtly sinister. Andrew Philpot and Elizabeth Stuart are amusingly slimy as the Thenardiers, a husband and wife who provide comic relief while epitomizing amoral opportunism.
Those who find their way to Santa Maria or Solvang for this production will discover a show of unusual breadth and depth, one that compellingly celebrates courage over despair, forgiveness over revenge, and love in all its forms.