Entertainment

Review: Les Misérables a masterpiece of moral bravery worth waiting for

Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy, right) warns arch-enemy sheriff Javert (Jay Davis) to stop chasing him during Chemainus Theatre
Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy, right) warns arch-enemy sheriff Javert (Jay Davis) to stop chasing him during Chemainus Theatre's June 20 premiere of Les Miserables.
— image credit: Andrew Leong

French cooking can take time, but it’s worth waiting for.

So was Chemainus Theatre’s deliciously daring debut of Les Misérables, served to Friday’s packed house.

Set in Paris’ upheaval of the 1800s, the Mural Town theatre’s long-awaited version of the globally toasted, hit musical was simply magnificent.

For openers, director Peter Jorgensens’ Les Mis proved the sweeping, globally popular production can be done on stages of any size.

That feat was accomplished Friday, thanks to a multi-talented, 18-member cast of all ages, backed by a sensational stage quintet led by pianist Kevin Michael Cripps.

Those crew’s duties were ably modified by Amir Ofek’s effectively understated set, and Jessica Bayntun’s raggedly authentic period costumes of the lower and middle classes.

Mike Taugher’s lighting regally reflected Les Mis’ many changing moods, from terrible and tragic, to lively and romantic.

And Paul Tedeschini’s sound delivered memorable lyrics without mikes, in the drama totally dependent on sung dialogue.

Audience ears got a good workout as characters were created with textured tones and expressions, not lines.

Jorgensen’s small yet potent Les Mis allowed us to focus on the story, not effects and sets of larger-scale versions previously seen by many in Friday’s crowd.

The appeal of Les Mis was its brave David-versus-Goliath plot as escaped jailbird Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy) is hounded for years by obsessive sheriff, Javert (Jay Davis).

Javert symbolized humanity’s inability to show mercy. He has the law on his side, and doesn’t know or care valiant Valjean served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread.

Conversely, Valjean, once out, promised a dying waif Fantine (Lauren Bowler) he’d always take care of her new-born, illegitimate daughter.

Promise kept, as little Cosette (Lily Killam) stole our hearts while suffering neglect by her booze-soaked caretakers, the Thenardiers (Caitriona Murphy, Andrew Wheeler).

The couple’s rollicking song Master Of The House, a Les Mis trademark, would be funny if the cowardly carrion eaters weren’t so authentically nasty.

Valjean’s stoic morals continued morphing as Cosette becomes a woman (Vanessa Croome) courted Marius (Sayer Roberts), an idealistic rebel with a cause against class domination.

Ultimately, Marius and his principled but doomed friends mounted a futile, armed revolt, using a makeshift barricade against government forces.

Selfless Valjean risked his life to help Marius and his followers during the Parisienne-style Alamo.

It was great watching Michelle Bardach’s Eponine admit her failed love for Marius, and die for his cause.

Terrific too was spunky talent from young Sebastian Tow as pint-size Gavroche, who fatally helps Marius’ band — proving little guys can fight back.

(Tow later said he was “honoured” to act in the theatre where his late father, Jeremy, served as artistic director for many years.)

Valjean’s valour proved too much for mean, jaded Javert, displaying how justice is blind, and the law may not always be right.

Les Mis’ messages about standing for beliefs, in the face of awesome odds, aren’t new but they were timely. For instance, swap the powerful play’s French government soldiers for oil companies and Ottawa.

Some First Nations and environmentalists are preparing to battle oil firms and the feds to stop the controversially approved Enbridge pipeline.

In Cowichan, Shawnigan Lake residents have vowed to stand in front of dump trunks to stop tonnes of contaminated soil from being hauled to a permitted treatment site.

These hot current affairs perfectly exemplify how life can echo art — as apparently intended by visionary playwrights Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schonberg.

Through Les Mis, the pair basically asked — even challenged — viewers if they would stand and fight for their principles, or hide and let others take all the risks.

Maybe that’s the infectious appeal of Chemainus Theatre’s Les Mis, Brentwood College School’s 2012 version, and many others: folks always cheer for outnumbered, scrappy underdogs.

If you haven’t enjoyed the magic of Les Mis, here is your chance.

Les Misérables runs at the Chemainus Theatre until Sept. 7.

Musical-drama rating: 10 scruples out of 10.

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