Production of “Les Miserables” at Shea’s showcases Buffalo’s thriving theater scene

On Saturday March 3, 3,000 people dreamed the dream in Buffalo’s historical Shea’s Performing Arts Center as they watched the “Les Miserables” 25th anniversary tour’s stunning production of the legendary pop-opera.

One of the longest running musicals in the world, “Les Miserables” tells the life story of Jean Valjean, a man imprisoned for 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon his release, he attempts to begin life anew by breaking his parole, but soon finds that the law and the stain of his crimes are not so easily ignored.

What follows are decades of struggle for redemption and identity amidst the imposing, turbulent backdrop of France in the years preceding and then following the French Revolution.

“Les Miserables” is nothing if not brimming with content. Adapted from the 1,500-page novel by Victor Hugo, the musical strips relationships and story elements to their simplest, rawest forms, but with about 25 named characters and capped at three hours, the musical is an epic.

Add to that the fact that this show is sung completely throughout – meaning there is no dialogue, only singing, throughout the entire production – and audiences unfamiliar with the story might struggle to put the pieces together.

Shea’s “Les Miserables,” however, was an experience: an emotional, musical journey. Details may be obscured here or there by the spectacular scenery and large ensemble, but the talent never was.

The voices were otherworldly in their strength and beauty and the acting was so powerful that audience members found themselves crying and laughing in all the right places regardless of whether or not they understood every little plot nuance.

It is a musical that should be witnessed by everyone, in one form or another, in their lifetimes. Unfortunately, this particular tour only ran from Feb. 28 – March 4 in Buffalo and for theater patrons hoping to grace Shea’s to see it, that dream is now over.

Luckily, the dream is only over for that specific production; Buffalo remains a city where theatrical dreams come true every hour of every day, and if you missed that production, there is another play or musical being put on somewhere within the city limits to help soften that disappointment.

Few people would imagine Buffalo when asked to picture one of the most thriving theater communities in America, but Buffalo has anywhere from 18 to 25 theaters and theater companies in operation at any given time.

These theaters range from the subversive (like the avant-garde plays of the Torn Space Theater) to the mainstream (like the musicals of the MusicalFare Theatre) to the culturally diverse (like the shows of the Irish Classical Theatre, the Jewish Repertory Theatre and the African-American Cultural Center’s Paul Robeson Theater).

These theaters, as part of the Theater Alliance of Buffalo – a consortium dedicated to helping its member organizations – ensure that the arts flourish and are made available in a city whose government gives little in the way of support.

Still, variety might not be enough to draw Geneseo students an hour-and-a-half away, but for those with cars and a passion for the arts, Buffalo offers a lot at a great price.

Perhaps a fortunate side-effect to being, unfortunately, one of the poorest cities in the country, Buffalo’s rates are always reasonable, and for those still unsure, there are plenty of free shows, including the second largest open-air Shakespeare performances in the country.

Like “Les Miserables” – and the feeling of heart-wrenching fulfillment that lingers in its wake – and like Buffalo itself the theater will endure, as theater editor and critic Anthony Chase once compared. There is no business like show business anywhere, but in Buffalo, that is doubly true and we are in a good position to enjoy it.