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THEATER REVIEW: “Les Misérables" at Lamb's Players

Lamb’s Players Theatre has achieved the near-impossible again, with an inventive, streamlined and musically stunning production of the huge Broadway and West End hit “Les Misérables.”

Winner of eight Tony Awards in 1987 (it ran 16 years on Broadway), “Les Misérables” is based on Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel of crime and punishment, redemption, bravery, revolution, revenge and even love, set between Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo and the Paris uprising of 1832. Book, music and lyrics are by Claude-Michel Shönberg and Alain Boublil, with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.

Once you get used to Mike Buckley’s set that looks less like France than like my garage – chairs, tables, props all piled in heaps across the width of the stage, albeit with spaces cleverly left for cast members to pop into and out of, and an uneven raised area above where the nine-member orchestra is arranged – you’ll realize how cleverly functional it is.

Most of the plot revolves around a cat-and-mouse game between Jean Valjean (Brandon Joel Maier) – released on parole after serving 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving niece – and hateful police inspector Javert (Randall Dodge), determined to see Valjean back in prison.

Because Valjean must carry a yellow paper identifying him as an ex-con, only one person will help him: the Bishop of Digne (Christopher Lesson), who offers food, drink and a place to sleep.

When Valjean is caught with silver items stolen from the Bishop, Javert thinks he’s triumphed. But the Bishop outsmarts him, telling the cops he gave the silver to Valjean and giving him more.

After the cops leave, the Bishop admonishes Valjean to use the silver "to become an honest man," and that’s just what he does, changing his name, becoming both a wealthy factory owner and the mayor of his town. But Javert continues to stalk him.

Another plot strand involves the treatment of women as property, symbolized by Fantine (Kelsey Venter), a young factory worker who is fired when somebody rats her out as an unmarried mother. She is forced into prostitution, and Valjean will get involved in helping Fantine take care of daughter Cosette (Hourie Klijian as a child, Charlene Koepf as a young woman).

These plot strands play out against a backdrop of political unrest fomented by crop failures, price of living hikes and stagnant incomes. A cholera epidemic that killed more than 18,000 in Paris alone didn’t help, nor did a government that ignored the problems of the poor.

This show is a huge undertaking. Lamb’s has streamlined the story a bit, deleted some transitional music and a few minor characters, and brought the work down to its basic elements: redemption, romance and revolution.

Director Robert Smyth has a faultless cast, led by Maier – who as Valjean has never sung better, and that includes his terrific performance as Leo Frank in “Parade” – and Dodge, a perfect villain with the perfect voice.

If your eyes aren’t damp after Venter’s Fantine sings “I Dreamed a Dream,” you haven’t been listening. Jesse Abeel and Charlene Koepf and Allie Trimm are appealing and heart-tugging as the young lovers and the third wheel.

Neil Dale and Deborah Gilmour Smyth offer comic relief with their portrayals of the innkeeping (and thieving) Thénardiers. And Hourie Klijian and Scotty Atienza hold their own as Young Cosette and the child revolutionary Gavroche.

The large and capable ensemble includes Jordan Miller, Noah Fish, Brandon Sherman, Kürt Norby, Jacob Caltrider, Jessica Couto, Caitie Grady and Kyrsten Hafso-Koppman.

Jeanne Barnes Reith’s fine costumes are a major plus; kudos also to Patrick Duffy and Nathan Peirson for their excellent work on the sound and lighting, and to Carlos Mendoza and Jordan Miller for the dance and fight choreography.

Bravo to G. Scott Lacy for excellent musical direction and to onstage conductor Patrick Marion, who because of the stage configuration had to wave his arms to be seen by the other eight excellent musicians.

“Les Mis” is oversized in every way, with operatic passions and concerns. Congratulations to Smyth and the company for their superb realization of this difficult piece.

The details

“Les Misérables” EXTENDED through Sept. 21 at Lamb's Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave., Coronado.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; matinees Wednesday and Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.