- PHOTO BY AUDREY HOWARD
- MASTER OF THE HOUSE: Nik Johnson (center, hand in mouth) and Robin Kirk Wolf (red hair) play the crooked Madame and Monsieur Thénardier in Chameleon Productions’ Les Miserables.
WARNING: SPOILERS. LOTS AND LOTS OF SPOILERS.
Last year, following the release of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, my editor shocked me with her thoughts on the musical: “I hate Cosette.”
Life would be better for all concerned, she said, if Cosette would just stop ruining everything. Cosette wins Marius’ heart with a lot of useless flouncing, while the badass Éponine puts her life on the line fighting at the barricade. Then, in a moment of cruel irony, Éponine is shot delivering Marius’ note to Cosette—her love for Marius overlooked, or mistaken for platonic, right up to her death!
At the opening night of Chameleon Productions’ staging of Les Miserables, directed by Dana Shaheen, I tried out the “Cosette-ruins-everything” reading of the musical. For those unacquainted with Victor Hugo’s epic tale, Les Miserables centers on the life of Jean Valjean (played here by Jacob Garrison), a ex-convict who’s served 19 years—five for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s family, and the rest for trying to escape. The policeman Javert (Jacob Shearer, moustache in full force) releases Valjean on parole, which the man very quickly breaks. Eight years later, Valjean has transformed himself into Monsieur Madeleine, factory owner and mayor of the town of Montreuil-sur-Mer. It is in the mayor’s factory that we meet Fantine (played by the show’s producer, Jenny Shaheen). Another worker discovers that Fantine has been sending money to her illegitimate child, Cosette, and Valjean’s foreman throws Fantine out. With no money to send to her sick daughter, Fantine turns to prostitution. But after fighting off an abusive customer, she’s arrested, and it is here we once again encounter Police Inspector Javert.
Valjean, conscious of his own part in Fantine’s dire predicament—she was, after all, unfairly fired from his factory—comes to her defense. Fantine, growing weak with an unnamed illness, is sent to a hospital.
While Valjean is the thread running through the entire play, many other characters’ lives are fleshed out so well that they seem, for the moment, to be the star. Fantine’s downward spiral is beautifully executed, the beggars, urchins, prostitutes, and—suddenly, horribly!—her customers seeming to tear her apart, piece by piece. Then, director Shaheen stops the action: the other onstage characters freeze, allowing Fantine to emerge from the commotion to sing “I Dreamed a Dream,” moving away from the groping hands of a (once randy, now frozen in place) sailor. As Fantine, Jenny Shaheen’s singing voice sounds a bit hoarse—whether purposeful or not, it certainly fits her anguished, dying character.
Javert, upon encountering the mayor, is astounded at how much he reminds him of a prisoner named Jean Valjean, who broke his parole. But no matter, Javert goes on, because Valjean has recently been found and arrested.
After a great internal struggle, Valjean decides to turn himself in rather than let an innocent man suffer for his own crimes. As Fantine’s life runs out, Valjean promises to look after Cosette, begging Javert for three more days of freedom before beginning his sentence. Javert refuses, and Valjean escapes—this time in search of that sweet-voiced, unwitting troublemaker Cosette (Nadia Schwarz Bolef plays Cosette’s younger incarnation.)
Les Miserables is a sprawling, swiftly moving epic, so this synopsis barely scratches the surface of Act I. So many minor parts in this production are memorable enough to warrant reviews of their own, if space only allowed. Shearer’s performance humanizes the oft-despised Javert, a man whose moral conflict—uphold the law, or listen to his conscience?—eventually destroys him. At the barricades, a particularly moving moment sees Javert pinning one of his medals on the jacket of one of the fallen, a touch seemingly borrowed from the 2012 film.
Robin Kirk Wolf and Nik Johnson are wonderful as Madame and Monsieur Thénardier, the crooked, pickpocketing innkeepers who have been taking care of (that’s a nice way of putting it) the young Cosette, while extorting plenty of money from Fantine to pay for the girl’s mysterious “illnesses.”
“Master of the House,” the Thénardiers’ theme, is sung in broad Cockney (that’s how you indicate a character’s low breeding in a play, even one set in France). Physically, Johnson and Kirk Wolf’s performances are hilarious, both of them thieving giddily, leering at their customers with what almost passes for a welcoming smile. Their costumes are flamboyant and absurd—perhaps another nod to Hooper’s film version.
The production also makes gleeful use of a motorized turntable in the stage floor, a device that is, at times, extremely effective. When pieces of the set are pulled onto it, for instance, the scene seems to sweep grandly, if a little creakily, into place; during the barricade scenes, the turntable grants us a view of the action on both sides. In other scenes, however, all of this turning seems rather gratuitous—must every character spin around cinematically while delivering his or her soliloquy?
The second act is much shorter, and far more explosive. The ending of the first act has introduced us to the Friends of the ABC, a small revolutionary group led by Enjolras (Matt Ambrose, exuding rebellious vigor from his very pores). The French Revolution has come and gone, but the poor still have little voice in society. After the death of General Lamarque—a liberal-minded politician and friend to the lower classes—the rebels attempt a new revolution against the monarchy (later known as the June Rebellion). Enjolras and his band of workers and students barricade the streets of Paris in revolt. Among these rebels is the young Marius (Gregory Gorrindo).
Valjean and Cosette have been living peacefully for the past 15 years (the older Cosette played by the angel-voiced Taylor Safina), but when Cosette and Marius fall in love, their quiet existence is turned upside down. Valjean, visibly aged, joins the rebellion to protect Marius—putting himself, once again, squarely in the path of the older-and-angrier Javert.
Does Cosette ruin everything? In her innocence, yes. An aging Valjean endangers his life to save the man she loves—even dragging him, unconscious, through the sewer!—while she remains oblivious to it all. Ah, Cosette! If you only knew the shit others have waded through for you! How your mother sold herself! How the efforts of the valiant Éponine are overshadowed by the fluttering of your eyelashes!
Where was I? Right: the barricade. Dave Linfield and director Shaheen served as set designers, and have created a barricade that looks like a ramshackle pile of lumber and broken furniture but allows actors to clamber all over it safely. That’s good, since this set piece is crucial to the second act. Fighting ensues; surprising realistic-sounding gunshots ring out.
The wily street urchin Gavroche (a spritely Westen Meyer), the youngest of the rebels, serves initially as comedic relief, and thus, when he falls at the barricade, his death is perhaps the most devastating of all.
Despite the failure of the June Rebellion, the finale of Les Miserables is triumphant—and so, too, is this production. It was a gutsy choice for a local theater company, especially given the fact that audiences now have Tom Hooper’s extravagant film, with its heartrending close-ups, to compare it to. Opening night saw a few minor technical glitches—largely restricted to a bit of silliness with the curtains—but this didn’t seem to dampen audiences’ spirits. The cathartic force of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” still succeeded in bringing theatergoers to their feet, despite everything—even the havoc wreaked on 19th century France by one oh-so-innocent little girl.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner is here. That’s all you need to know. She will keep you safe at firstname.lastname@example.org.