Shauna Fallihee, as Eponine, and Phillip L.N. Harris, as Marius, in ‘Les Misérables,’ an abridged concert performance by the Masterworks Chorale.
Do you hear the people sing?
I heard the people sing this famous line, and many others, at San Mateo’s First Congregational Church on Saturday. The work was, of course, the musical of “Les Misérables,” with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. It was presented here in an abridged concert performance by the Masterworks Chorale, conducted by Bryan Baker, with 10 guest singers for the principal parts.
The principals were mostly veterans of theatrical groups like Pocket Opera and the Lamplighters, and they gave solid performances by the standards and in the style of local theater. Raymond Chavez made a cool-toned Valjean, his sweet tenor voice caressing the more introspective and reflective lyrics in songs like “Bring Him Home.” These, rather than Valjean’s defiance, were the highlights of his performance.
William O’Neill was an ideal Javert. Even in a silly hat (meant to be a bicorne, it flopped down around his ears and made him look geeky), he was powerfully-voiced, implacable and scary in his pursuit of Valjean. Philip L.N. Harris, likewise, was a strong-voiced Marius and not just a mooning lover. Roderick Lowe is a fine tenor, though too light for the part of Enjolras, the student rebel leader, who needs to be more stentorian.
Among the women, Jennifer Alexis Mitchell made a mature Cosette, her voice full of color and body, not a bit shrill, a good pairing for Harris’ Marius. Shauna Fallihee as Éponine displayed an extraordinary low soprano of richness and depth. Lindsay Thompson Roush, though plainer in style, had no trouble conveying all the tender emotion of Fantine’s songs, “I Dreamed a Dream” and her death scene.
For the comic relief, Dan Galpin and Meghan Dibble as the crooked innkeepers pranced wickedly across the stage with sly, lively singing, in good Lamplighters operetta style.
Various smaller parts were taken by members of the Chorale, about a third of them having solo lines as individual characters. Arthur Mahoney as the bishop who forgives Valjean’s theft was the outstanding performer here. Many of the others were of distinctly lesser vocal caliber as soloists than the principals, but none failed to be actors and not just chorus singers. That they were all lightly costumed helped a lot.
As a chorus, playing groups of prisoners, factory workers, prostitutes and clients, beggars and students, the Chorale was impressively precise and together, notably in fast numbers like “At the End of the Day.” This was all the more impressive considering the blazing speed with which Baker conducted the music. The only song that came out rushed and misshapen was the soft, wistful “Castle on a Cloud,” sung by Kate Linenbach as the young Cosette. She wasn’t allowed enough space between her phrases.
Despite clarity of diction from both chorus and principals, the words were often difficult to make out. This was a fault of the acoustics, and the words did become clearer as the show went on, perhaps due to the singers making adjustments for the venue.
Instead of a big theater orchestra, the accompaniment for this show was provided by a piano, a synthesizer keyboard and a drum kit. It sounded odd at first, especially in louder passages where thumps from the drums and piano made it sound like harsh and primitivist music by composers like Revueltas or Moncayo. Soon enough, though, I stopped paying attention to that. The flow and passion of the story took up the attention.
Some listeners don’t like “Les Misérables.” Early reviews of the first English-language production called it witless and lurid. It’s true that this musical seems to have only about four tunes. But they’re good tunes, that listeners can remember afterwards. This puts it in the top class of musicals of recent decades. And it has epic grandeur and deep passion, and the death scenes of Fantine and Valjean are always strongly affecting.
This performance displayed all of those qualities, so it did justice to the work being played.