by Ed Farolan

Queen Elizabeth Theatre
until Aug. 24

"To love another person is to see the face of God" is the poignant finale sung by the chorus of this exhilarating musical that opened last August 7th here in Vancouver.

All great plays are biblically inspired; the great Bard himself based many of his themes from Scriptures, as in Winter's Tale where forgiveness is the major motif . The same leitmotif shines in Les Miserables.

When the play opens, Jean Valjean (Gregory Calvin Stone) is released on parole after 19 years. He is branded an outcast, and only the saintly Bishop of Digne (Michael L. Marra) treats him kindly. In return, however, Valjean steals silver from him, and is eventually caught by the police who take him to the Bishop. Valjean is astonished when the Bishop lies to save him, and goes even further in his generosity by giving him two precious candlesticks. He admonishes Valjean to start his life anew in the spirit of love and forgiveness.

All through the rest of the play, Valjean sticks to his promise throughout his life. When he becomes Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer eight years later, he comes to the rescue of a man pinned down by a runaway cart. When the dying Fantine (Lisa Capps) asks him to look after her daughter Cosette (Danielle Raniere, Kate Fisher), he promises her he would and he does. During the Paris barricade, he has a chance to kill the cruel cop Javert (Todd Alan Johnson) who has been hunting him for 30 years for breaking his parole, but instead lets him go. And finally, he saves Marius, Cosette's fiancee, after all the rebels are killed in the barricade. Love and forgiveness has become a way of life for the reformed Valjean.

This touring cast straight from the Broadway production is a strong cast, tightly knit and disciplined in their performance, and they do extreme justice to Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schonberg's work. Tenor Stone's astonishing vocal range, particularly in the rendition of Bring Him Home was magnificent. On the other hand, Johnson's powerful baritone voice in Stars and Soliloquy vibrated throughout the auditorium, captivating an impressed audience.

The other actors were terrific. Rona Figueroa's Eponine has shades of her former role as Kim in Miss Saigon, with a more contemporary, almost pop-like quality to her vocal style, and together with Kate Fisher's Cosette and Rich Affannato's Marius, the songs In my life and A Heart Full of Love, were rendered beautifully in classic operatic style.

It was refreshing to hear children's voices with 8-year old Danielle Raniere's Cossette singing the very touching Castle on a Cloud, and 10-year old Ryan Rumbaugh's Gavroche catching laughs from an appreciative audience.

But the show-catchers were the Thenardiers (Tregoney Shepherd, J.P. Dougherty) for their stage presence as well as their humorous rendition of Master of the House and Beggars at the Feast.

Production-wise, the revolving stage did its functional role of carrying out most of the play's action, turning one way and then the other to artistically show both sides of Thenardier's tavern and the Paris barricade. The two piles of "junk" (reminiscent of another Cameron Mackintosh production, Cats) served its purpose in the first act as tenement houses for the poor, and in the second as the barricade for the failed student revolution. Light and sound effects were remarkable: what stood out were the shadow and fog techniques in the battle scenes as well as the light and "drip-drip" echo sounds from the Paris sewers. The only thing lacking was the smell to complete the ambience.

All in all, this musical was an inspiring three hours of songs, drama and humour that won the hearts of Vancouver's opening night audience, who showed their appreciation with a warm and sincere standing ovation.