Please don't fret if you fail to pick up every plot detail or character nuance in Stage West Community Playhouse's splendid production of Les Miserables, playing weekends through Nov. 24. After all, the musical has more than 40 characters and two (or more) major plot lines spread out over nearly two decades and told in three hours of non-stop songs of love, death, war, despair and redemption.
What has made this tale of political unrest, social inequality, and personal loves and struggles in early nineteenth-century France an award-winning, world-wide phenomenon for nearly 30 years are its universal and timeless themes, composer Claude-Michel Schonberg's haunting musical refrains, Herbert Kretzmer's touching (and sometimes comedic) lyrics and Alain Boublil's book, based on Victor Hugo's 1862 masterpiece of the same name, itself based on an actual event.
Then there's director Barbara Everest's impressive players, vocal director Roberta Moger's thrilling singers, and musical director Wayne Raymond's splendid 12-piece orchestra. Actors came from far and near for the chance to be a part of this monumental work of art — and it shows.
This is not a star vehicle, though the unifying thread is ex-convict Jean Valjean (a stirring Brian Beach) and his relentless pursuer Detective Javert (a striking W. Paul Wade), so the casting directors had to find more than a dozen singers who could carry significant solos, as well as fine ensemble singers and talented musicians.
And find them they did. In spades.
Beach's Valjean, who spent 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's starving son, is tough but tender. He's bombastically resolute as he wonders Who Am I? and achingly soft in his plea for fighters on the eve of battle, Bring Him Home. Wade as Javert, the straight-laced detective who does not believe in reform or redemption, uses his formidable physical presence to make Valjean's adversary thoroughly intimidating and his own breakdown all the more pitiable.
To help the audience recognize the passage of time, director Everest uses a semi-opaque scrim screen during the first phase of the show, set around 1815. When it lifts, it's eight years later, Valjean has discarded his convict's identification, taken on a new name and become a rich factory owner. Eileen Bernard's detailed costumes (period costumes by Costume America) make the difference between the rich and the poor factory workers and street people starkly apparent.
Factory worker Fantine (a radiant Victoria Primosch) is fired for having an out-of-wedlock child and belts her heartache over her faithless lover in I Dreamed a Dream. She ends up a prostitute (the chirpy Lovely Ladies) and dies, but not before Valjean promises to rescue her tiny daughter Cosette (an adorable little Trinity Walz singing Castle on a Cloud) from the rapacious innkeepers, Thenardier (a roguish Chuck DePalo) and his crafty wife (a totally delightful Leanne Germann), who provide much-needed comic relief with their bawdy Master of the House and conniving Waltz of Treachery when they sell Cosette to Valjean.
Nine years later (notice that Cosette has grown up), in 1832, a group of students led by the emotional, dramatic Marius (an emotional, dramatic Ryan Bintz) and dedicated Enjolras (a solid Patrick Gonzalez) gather their friends to challenge the current government. Marius and Cosette (a brilliant Brittany Gonzalez) all long for One Day More! for their various reasons.
Second act highlights are a grown-up Eponine Thenadier (a sincere, pitch-perfect Jessica Virginia) lamenting her unrequited love for Marius, On My Own; and a spunky, 8-year-old Maxwell Brazier playing the high-spirited, fearless little Gavroche, bragging about what Little People can do.
The large set construction crew kept the set pieces simple enough for quick, unobtrusive changes that keep the action going, with one monster of a street barricade that is as professional looking as any ever made. The final dress rehearsal/tech night had a few light and sound glitches (mainly balky body mics), which should be cleared up quickly.
Kudos to Stage West for bringing this stage classic to local audiences in a production worthy of praise from start to finish.