REVIEW: Les Miserables (Broadway in Chicago)

        
       

Back to Les Barricades!

  
 

Jeremy Hays as Enjolras, in the 25th anniversary tour of 'Les Miserable', presented by Broadway in Chicago.  Photo credit Deen van Meer.

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
   
Les Miserables
  
Written by A. Boublil, H. Kretzmer, and C. Schonberg,
with additional material by
James Fenton
Directed by
Laurence Connor and James Powell
at
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $25-$90  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is my tenth trek through Victor Hugo‘s musical spin-off, now in its 25th anniversary production (which means no turntable and new orchestrations). But everything old is new again, what you expect from a touring production where freshness is essential. Though the students’ barricade can’t revolve (so the death of Gavroche occurs literally out of sight) and, more crucially, the useful overhead captions delineating the passage of time and changing locations are missing, for Miserable fans it’s the kind of sound and fury that signifies sensation. Restaged by Laurence Connor and James Powell, this less sprawling but more intimate version fits nicely into the huge Palace Theatre where it never played before.

Lawrence Clayton, Richard Todd Adams, Alan Shaw, in 'Les Miserable' at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo credit Deen van Meer.Les Miserables remains the Mother Ship of Musicals, with the sprawl of Cats, the swirl of Starlight Express, the political passion of Evita, and the melodic turns and pop soulfulness of Jesus Christ Superstar.

It’s easy to mistake Les Miz for its hype, to lose the story in the spectacle. As always, the test is – how much real feeling survives from page to stage? “Trop et trop peu”. Too much and too little.

The novel compresses three turbulent decades of French history into the life of Jean Valjean, a proletarian martyr who becomes a fugitive for stealing bread to feed his sister’s family. Valjean’s a convict who might have been a criminal–except for a pivotal act of forgiveness. That mercy encourages Valjean to protect persecuted Fantine, promising the dying woman to care for her daughter Cosette. Fulfilling that pledge, he later rescues Cosette’s beloved Marius, a freedom-fighting student, Jean does this despite Javert, the diabolical cop who for 17 years doggedly pursues the fugitive across France.

Hugo’s soaring tale is pure melodrama. Appropriately, the three-hour epic wastes no time in subtlety. Schonberg’s songs are the action–mainstream, mostly major-key melodies constantly recycled for cumulative effect; Herbert Kretzmer‘s obvious lyrics spell out all the characters think and feel and how we’re to take it. Alas, they’re often full of unearned emotion: With no set-up to the songs they seem to come out of nowhere. But the singers mean well…

Every number brings an emotional peak to be scaled, which means forgetting the last crisis to move on to the next. It’s like speed-reading the novel. In the second act alone we endure a heroine’s death, the murder of an innocent waif, the mass death of idealistic students, the mourning of their survivors, a villain’s suicide, the lovers’ duet, a foiled blackmail attempt, the hero’s renunciation, his heartbreaking reconciliation with loved ones, and a dubiously triumphant finale sung entirely by a throng of marching ghosts!

Few operas dare to cover so many crises. No orgy ever had so many climaxes. Les Miz does–but not without risking a campy overkill.

But its glorious excess makes thrilling theater. Here it’s richly performed by a dedicated cast, though too often it seems a contest between the orchestra and the singers to see who can wax louder.

Justin Scott Brown (Marius), Ian Patrick Gibb (Jean Prouvaire) in 'Les Miserables' national tour. Photo credit: Deen van Meer.Blessed with an effortless tenor, Lawrence Clayton sturdy Valjean, the inspiration for “The Fugitive,” is ardent as required but the fact that he’s also African-American makes him even more of an outsider than Hugo would have imagined. (Now Javert seems as much a racist as a reactionary.) Though the implacable pursuer is a one-dimensional villain (his anthem "Stars" is too noble for this reactionary bully), Andrew Varela delivers the evil with inexhaustible conviction and a barrelhouse baritone. Betsy Morgan breathes power into her proudly fallen Fantine whose ghostly reappearance differs little from her saintly earthly existence.

As the lovers, Justin Scott Brown and Jenny Latimer are picture-perfect. Playing bittersweet Eponine, the sacrificial lamb who loves Marius in vain, Chasten Harman, also African American, is too gung-ho on the pop stylings but her hopelessness for Marius takes on even more texture. (But this is not an audition for “American Idol.”) For comic relief we get the Thenardiers, predatory parasites opportunistically played by Shawna M. Hamic and Michael Kostroff, two vaudevillian rogues.

The show is drenched in a dim, Daumier-like vision of bleak poverty. Wooden ramparts loom above, while the shifting stage turns up law courts, towering barricades, and boisterous taverns, all peopled by a supercharged chorus. No question, Les Miserables is an ordeal – but some people just love running—or watching—marathons.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
Chaten Harmon as Eponine in the 25th Anniversary tour of 'Les Miserable'.  Photo credit: Deen van Meer Female cast members perform "Lovely Ladies" in the national tour of 'Les Miserables'. Photo Credit: Deen van Meer
Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic in scene from the 25th-anniversary Broadway tour of 'Les Miserables'.  Photo credit: Deen van Meer Justin Scott Brown as Marius with the student revolutionaries in a scene from the 25th-Anniversary Tour of 'Les Miserables'.  Photo credit: Deen van Meer
     
     

The barricade scene from the 25th-Anniversary tour of 'Les Miserables'.  Photo credit: Deen van Meer.

     
     

One Response

  1. I saw this last night
    How can you take the worlds greatest play and ruin it
    take out the heart and and more spice
    THis appeared to be directed by a couple of horny 13 year olds! please
    then I read they wanted to reach the younger audience
    what next add Lady Gagas clothing to the Mona Lisa
    Leave Les Mis Alone
    this version was junk dont waste your money

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