BY STEVEN DEVADANAM
When Frenchman Victor Hugo penned Les Misérables, his epic novel based on the oppressed poor of the 1832 Paris Revolution, he probably wasn’t thinking of the Lone Star State. But to a Texan, some elements of this saga are strikingly familiar. A steely-eyed lawman who just won’t give up the hunt: sounds like a Western, yes? A brutal government army, marching on young freedom fighters who’ve holed themselves up in a heroic last stand: a little like the story of our sacred shrine in San Antonio, maybe?
“You’re right, that’s the Alamo moment! There are absolutely Texas themes in this show,” says Drew Slatton, who’ll play lead character Jean Valjean in Fort Bend Theatre’s summer musical Les Misérables. The story is now commonly known as a multiple-Tony-award-winning Broadway musical and Hollywood smash hit, and so to pull off the heavy-duty vocal duties, Fort Bend Theatre enlisted Houston opera tenor and actor Slatton, who has performed to national and international audiences. Slatton sees plenty of Texan and American in the Frenchman he’s portraying. “He’s a character who really can speak to anybody,” says Slatton, “whether you’re living in a shack in the middle of Nowhere, Texas, or in a penthouse in Central Park in New York City. He’s downtrodden, he’s an everyman, and even though he’s French, he really appeals to the American dream.”
Maybe that’s because Valjean is one of literature’s original rag-to-riches stories. Dirt poor, he steals a loaf of bread to save his sister’s children from dying of starvation—and gets a 19-year jail sentence by an obsessive cop named Javert. A gentle priest’s mercy changes Valjean’s life after he’s freed. He changes his name, eventually becomes the richest man in a small French town, and becomes its mayor, though always guilt-ridden and looking over his shoulder.
Another chance at Valjean’s redemption comes in the form of Fantine, a young worker fired from Valjean’s factory when she refuses her manager’s advances. Feeling responsible for her fate, Valjean promises the dying Fantine that he’ll take care of her young daughter Cosette. Later, an accident forces Valjean to admit his criminal past and real identity; he’s now on the run, trying to protect young Cosette in the process. They move to Paris, and meet a cast of young revolutionaries who’re ready to die for their cause against a brutal French government. If that weren’t enough, the fanatical Javert has now made hunting Valjean a full time job. Valjean is torn between turning himself in, protecting Cosette, and standing up to the French army at a very Alamo-like barricade set up by the French freedom fighters. It’s all set up for explosive climaxes and soaring, heart-wrenching – and even naughty – musical numbers, which Slatton thinks adds to the storytelling. “Scientifically, we react to music more deeply than anything else,” he says. “So you touch people on a deeper level than the spoken form alone.”
Fort Bend Theatre, which celebrates its 25th season this year, is hoping to touch people by educating them on a devastating local phenomenon. “Research shows that Houston has the greatest occurrence of human trafficking in the country,” says Executive Artistic Director Tarra McCain, “and we want to make a difference.” McCain has invited several non-profit groups who aid victims of human trafficking, including Free the Captives, Redeemed Ministries and Freedom Place, to be in attendance, and a portion of ticket sales will go to their causes.
“There’s a real challenge in this show for the audience,” adds Slatton. “How do you react when you see injustice? Do you pick up a gun and declare war, like the revolutionaries? Do you leave it and say, ‘Well, wrong is wrong,’ like Javert? Or do you find a way to help – no matter what – like Valjean? What do you do?”
With Les Misérables and its good cause, the easiest way to fight injustice might be simply buying a theater ticket.
Les Misérables opens Friday, August 1st thru Sunday August 3rd, at the Stafford Centre “Tickets start at $20 (10505 Cash Rd, Stafford, TX 77477; 281-208-6900). For tickets and information, call 281-208-3333 or www.fortbendtheatre.com.