Gateway: Opinion

Commentary: PHS ‘Les Miserables’ production offers authenticity, deep connection

Comparing a local production of “Les Miserables” and a Hollywood movie probably isn’t fair.

One has computer generated gargantuan ships and cavernous sewers; the other might have stairs of wooden boxes and cardboard walls held up with bungee cords. One has extreme close-ups of well-paid Australian actors; the other might have actors that we hope get through the next scene without further mishaps, or that they just give up and vacate the stage.

One cost $61 million; the other priceless.

With apologies to Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman and uh (what was her name?), the recent Peninsula High School production of “Les Miserables” that ended May 15, directed by Kara Beloate, was simply stunning. Young students transformed into a splendid Equity Guild cast, live music, gorgeous lighting and a set design that will get copied by Broadway (including the largest keg that ever rolled around on a high school stage) — I half expected Victor Hugo to rise up from wherever he is to request an encore.

Unlike a collision with Marshawn Lynch, the story in “Les Mis” can seem idealistic and sentimental. Women attend several performances and dream of having Valjean’s children. Men decline free tickets but want to meet Madame Thenardier. The plot is typical B-movie fare: Valjean steals loaf of apparently very good French bread, spends lifetime atoning while pursued by Javert. Fantine sells herself to pay the Thenardiers to care for her child. Cosette finds true love during armed revolution — all the great themes of the last 200 years. If that’s too much, there is comic relief provided by tavern owner Thenardier and his preening Madame, either of whom I hope will soon open a pub near Purdy, provided they pass the background checks.

The music and lyrics are so achingly beautiful that neither the plot, nor actors who are occasionally off-key, much matter. The only thing that can detract from the beauty of “Les Mis” is an insincere performance, and I didn’t experience a wisp of one Friday night. Plus, the true measure of any “Les Mis” production, I asked my dear wife for a record number of Kleenexes.

If I said Tanner Peavey blew Jackman away on “Bring Him Home” you wouldn’t believe me, but I can tell you from experience that it takes more courage to get up on stage solo than to be tackled by a huge linebacker. Ever since I tried karaoke, once in Canada, my firm belief is that anyone who dares to perform should not be criticized but applauded, and eventually given free health care.

I assumed my lifetime favorite would be the long-running London show, but what made the Peninsula performance special is kind of like the career/relational destinations of Cosette and Fantine — something done for money doesn’t always seem sincere. Authenticity and connection can’t be purchased.

My advice? Buy local and hope for the best.

Art isn’t just hitting the right notes; what matters is the emotion transmuted between author and reader, actor and audience. Beyond spending a few minutes with the brave fellows on the barricades, I can’t think of anywhere I would have rather been the night I saw this show.

The standing ovation was sustained and spontaneous. With more boosters and parents like those cheering on these young performers the survival of our species is less worrisome. I left wishing Valjean had managed to have his own kids and adopt a bunch more. Even life in Thenardier’s house doesn’t seem so bad. At least they get to dance.

Far too many high schools students — Gig Harbor may be an exception — see basketball or football as the only career option not requiring advanced math skills. Too bad there are only a few dozen or so openings. Careers options have dwindled for the other 30 million 18- to 24-year-olds. How many of them can expect an owner-occupied house and children who won’t be in danger of being exported to China to work in factories? Too many of their parents’ generation are checking out on opioids, booze and despair. No wonder they call Valjean a saint.

If we were to downsize the NFL and a few other billionaire-owned playgrounds, use the proceeds to build local performing arts centers, we could employ 100 or so hardworking, local stage hands, actors, set creators and musicians in every mid-sized city in America. Then we hire someone like Mrs. Beloate to manage.

Imagine what else we might bring back home.

Bjorn Benson can be reached at bjornbenson@outlook.com.

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