Review: Les Misérables Brings Zombie Metaphors to Reflect on Modern Culture

Via Pittsburgh Cultural Trust

Les Miserables runs through Sunday November 27, 2022 at the Benedum Center.

On Tuesday night, my favorite musical partner Sarah P and I went to see Les Miserables at the Benedum Center. The Benedum is one of my favorite places to see things because it is a beautiful grand theatre with comfortable seats and wonderful acoustics. Sarah P and I had to hustle there for the 7:30 PM start after going to one of our favorite places to eat and discovering that it was not longer walk up takeout but had morphed into a formal sit-down service.

Les Miserables is based on a French historical novel by Victor Hugo, first published in 1862, that is considered one of the greatest novels of the 19th century. The musical debuted in 1980. 

The show is renowned for its music – nearly 50 different songs. But this productionhad amazing visual effects. It began with a scene of a ship being rowed by prisoners set against the backdrop of a turbulent sea. When the ship reaches its destination, we are introduced to one of the main characters, Jean Valjean, who has been incarcerated for nineteen years for stealing a piece of bread! The play follows his transformation from a convict to a “respectable” gentleman who becomes mayor of a French town, rescues a man pinned under a runaway cart, rescues a girl from the clutches of a disreputable couple who owns an inn, and assists in the French revolution. He also keeps running and escaping from a determined police officer who wants to imprison him for skipping his parole.

Although the musical has as one of its major themes unrequited love, I think one of the main themes is how authoritarian regimes punish their citizen for minor offenses (19 years for stealing a slice of bread!) and keep their citizens in poverty and misery. The musical certainly shows various wealthy characters throughout who abuse and disregard “the lesser citizens.” Les Miserables expounds upon how those in poverty feel about their treatment and place in society which invariably leads to a revolution.

There was one scene featuring beggars in rags and, I swear, it startled me because the characters looked just like zombies (which is an interesting metaphor for how people in extreme poverty move through the world). They were not, for the record, zombies.   

Along the way, the sets and scenery are wonderous. The singing was amazing and several of the main characters had solos that were moving and beautiful. 

This was Sarah’s first time with Les Mis. She was somewhat familiar with all of the songs, but hearing them ensemble took her breath away. She said she frequently had chills and Fantine’s performance of I Dreamed a Dream brought tears to her eyes. 

I’m not a professional critic so I’m not doing this justice, but if you’re interested in amazing singing, costumes and visual effects in the service of a musical about morality, ethics, human nature, etc. then I would urge you to see Les Miserables. It is interesting to me that the themes contained in it are occurring in 2022.     

This staging is fantastic and absorbing. It is sobering to think of Fantine’s predicament of being an unwed mother abandoned by her lover and then her employer. That’s pretty contemporary as a them – why are more moved by the plight of a fictional woman than the dreams of women in our everyday lives? 

I should warn you that this musical is three hours long with an intermission so be prepared accordingly. And it is a heavy lift to keep track of all of the characters. We approach that by just absorbing what we absorb, then sitting in the car afterwards and looking through the program to put our pieces together. Don’t be intimidated by the magnitude of the story. As with all good stories, you’ll find your thread the draws you in. 

The power of the performing arts to help us access lofty works by helping us connect with the universal themes is one reason musical move people so deeply.

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