Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

Les Misérables
South Bay Musical Theatre
Review by Jeanie K. Smith

Also see Richard's reviews of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike and A Winter's Tale

Mischa G. Stephens and Corrie Borris
Les Misérables is one of the most popular musicals ever, performed the world over and thrilling audiences for almost three decades. It requires massive production resources and a large cast capable of operatic vocals, and regional rights were only made available this year, so when South Bay Musical Theatre announced Les Mis for its season opener, with award-winning director Jay Manley at the helm, artists lined up to participate, and eager patrons bought up the entire run before the show even opened.

Based on Victor Hugo's classic novel of 1862, the plot follows common-man hero Jean Valjean (Mischa G. Stephens) from 1832 to 1853, in the tumultuous era of post-revolution France. We meet him first as a galley slave, incarcerated for stealing a loaf of bread and kept locked up for 19 years due to several escape attempts. He is paroled, only to steal again from a kindly Bishop (Jeffrey Henson); but when the Bishop gives him the stolen goods, securing his freedom, he's redeemed and set on a quite different path, determined to become a good and moral man.

Years later, now a prominent factory owner, Valjean encounters Fantine (Corrie Borris), a fallen woman dying of consumption. He promises to protect her young daughter Cosette (Claire Lentz or Beth Sanford), whom he has to buy from the unscrupulous Thénardiers (Walter M. Mayes & Karyn Rondeau). He also recognizes his former slavemaster, Inspector Javert (Michael Rhone), who is the town's chief constable and who doesn't recognize him. When Javert claims to have found a Valjean to bring to justice, the real Valjean knows he must make an ethical decision. Revealing himself to Javert, he escapes yet again with Cosette.

Fast forward another eight years, to a student rebellion against corrupt government forces. Valjean gets involved when grown-up Cosette (Katherine Goldman) falls in love with student Marius (Corey Liggans); Marius is also loved by Éponine (Jade Shojaee), the Thénardiers' feisty daughter. Javert is also there, fighting for the government troops. Again, Valjean is faced with ethical choices and must fulfill his transformation into a good man.

It's an epic, sprawling narrative, with big themes that appeal to our desire for a just world and our sympathies with the downtrodden. Add rousing music with soaring melodies that captures emotion and you have a recipe for a timeless hit. Throw in a cast brimming with talent and a director adept at staging big musicals and it's a slam dunk for huge success.

The cast in SBMT's Les Mis is uniformly excellent, from the leads to the ensemble; there's a superb depth of talent on stage. Stephens as Valjean grimaces his way through the opening scenes, but once he sings "Who Am I?" we are putty in his hands. His gorgeous, confident voice brings the house down more than once: his rendition of "Bring Him Home" is truly exceptional. Rhone's voice is strong and velvety smooth, and Javert feels like a role he was born to play. Borris, Goldman and Shojaee all possess solid vocal skills that match their characters well; Shojaee's "On My Own" is a beautiful version of the popular song.

Thénardiers Mayes and Rondeau romp their way through "Master of the House," which also sports delightful choreography. "Beggars at the Feast" again shows off their comic and vocal skills. Other standouts include Adrien Gleason as Enjolras, leader of the rebellion, Jeffrey Henson as the Bishop, Liggans as Marius, and Charlie Ibsen as the street urchin Gavroche.

Scenic design by Stephen C. Wathen impressively creates numerous locations and structures with a seemingly endless inventory of rolling and flying set pieces, and is aided by atmospheric lighting design by Michael Glenn Munoz. Costume design, by Marti Kranak, is a bit of a mash-up—sometimes attractive but a confusing mix of eras, correctness sacrificed for cliches.

Overall it's a tour de force, with terrific energy and passion and talent. Kudos to director Jay Manley for a memorable production.

Les Misérables, book by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer; presented by South Bay Musical Theatre, Saratoga Civic Theater, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, through October 19, 2013. Tickets $20-$35; the website confirms that the run is sold out, but seats may become available if they are returned to the box office; check online at or by phone at 408-266-4734.

Photo: Chris Copeland

Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Jeanie K. Smith

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