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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

Les Miserables at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Or: These are the songs that touch our souls

When Jean Valjean (Stephen Mitchell Brown) is freed from 19 years of hard labor, it only to emerge into a grim and heartless 19th Century France, rife with injustice, where the law, in the person of the merciless Inspector Javert (Brian Sutherland), serves only as a force of persecution. But a selfless act of kindness changes the feral and fearsome convict to soul desperate to save itself and others, determined to light a small candle of love and righteousness in a dark world. When his quest for goodness knits him to Fantine (Jodi Dominick), a good woman in bad trouble, and her daughter Cosette (Clair Howes Eisentrout), Valjean launches himself down a path that will entangle his fate with lovers, dreamers, and treacherous schemers, all streaming towards the inglorious 6th of June, 1832; with the implacable Javert hunting close behind. And on occasion, everyone bursts into song.

But what songs! Alain Boubill and Claude-Michell Schonberg have crafted an enduring score, Daedalos’s wings for Victor Hugo’s beloved novel, that intricately entwines itself within the play. It is a musical sweet without being saccharine, tragic without melodrama, and saucy without the usual discarding of prudence. It will make you, at turns, reach to lend your lawn chairs to the barricade or check the need to rush out of the theater, find your loved ones, and tell them how truly dear they are to you.

Of course, just like the wings of Dadalos, it is possible, when flying too high, to loose a few feathers an get into some wonky turbulence. Director Victoria Bussert’s presentational, gesture heavy style (a continuation of last year’s Sweeney Todd, which has more than a few mementos lying about the person of humorously dangerous Thenardier (Tom Ford) does much, in terms of pure staging, to accomplish a great deal of Broadway magic with nothing more arcane than pure wit. The matrix-cart scene for example and the sticky-wicket of thoinoyish “Turning” , are all the better for the lighter touch. But it takes a heavy toll from the acting quality as we wonder why so few people seem to be actually addressing each other. The musical’s glory is its human heart, the foibles and faults and fears we recognize in ourselves, caged up within the bright bars of an operatic score. Why only polish the cage and note not the treasure within? We are also left to wonder why the company are so concerned with emotive gestures and be-brandishments straight out of the 18th century actors handbook? Or why, when rallying their troops, the revolutionaries prefer to march forward and back like the Policemen of Penzance (do the government forces fear Richard Simmons impersonators more than firearms?) Or why, why in heaven’s name, has Javert changed “Stars” into an interpretive dance, complete with a Tim Tebow impersonation?

But, like many things, it gets better. Repetition of a conceit lends it weight and many of Bussert’s later ideas (the candles, oh glory be, those candles) grow up to have shoulders broad enough to carry both necessity and eloquence. By the second act the barriers of artifice have broken down to allow natural communication and expression to wriggle out, like green shoots from concrete. This is best evidenced by the revitalizing of the immortal love triangle of le Belle (Cosette), le Bette (her revolutionary lover Marius, Pedar Benson Bate) et le Bonne Coeur (Eponine Thenardier (Keri Fuller) a street urchin of bad straights and worse parentage who still tries to do right for friend Marius and his suit, even as she pines for him). Eisentrout and Bate bring, in addition to a brace of sweet voices, a very active and delightfully awkward flavor to Cosette and Marius’s courtship , quite apart from the usual “I am so full of love I cannot answer thee acutely”* style that often bogs down this pair. For her part, Fuller is particularly alive in both Eponine’s defiant presence and her love-consumption, investing a palpable pain in “A Little Fall of Rain and “On my Own”, containing a melodic scream of such power it cracked hearts like eggs.

Other cases of late action harmony are present in the the revolutionaries and their cadre of women’s auxiliary, lead by the bright as brass Enjolras (Kyle Jean Baptiste) whose melodic and bell-clear notes (unnecessarily underscored by much rifle-but thumping) are the string that knits the rag-tag bunch of beloved malcontents together. It mirrors, perhaps unconsciously, the state of the production: threaded through by the power of Brown’s operatic, almost Orphian, voice. Like most every other aspect of the production, Brown starts off powerful and roughshod and gains refinement as the story ticks on: his first few songs are a touch yell-y (not to say it’s not impressive to hear a yell sung) but soon are refined into audio-architectural marvels, in a voice that rattles your frame, warms the marrow of the bones. By the time he comes to “Bring Him Home”, he is far away from chrome and steel notes offering a soft, fervent prayer, delicate as the finest porcelain.

In brief, the brightness of Le Miz, well shines throughout the cloudy glass that has been set around it. For all the strange decisions, the feathers shed, Bussert and her company provide the crafted wings of Boublil and Schonberg with a firm lift of beauteous voices and an honest view of both tragedy and joy. By hook and crook they succeed in rendering the show what it should be: a musical as benediction, an absolution of guilt and a clarion call to do more for your fellow mankind: with every song, with every breath, each and and every time.

*Paraphrased from All’s Well That End’s Well I, i

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