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.

     
     

REVIEW: punkplay (Pavement Group at Steppenwolf)

Even high school sub-cultures demand conformity.

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Pavement Group presents:

punkplay

written by Gregory Moss
directed by David Perez
Through April 25th at Steppenwolf Garage (more info)

by Barry Eitel

punkplay_1_photobyPeterCoombs You can tell Gregory Moss’ play punkplay is pretty rebellious from the fact that the title refuses to be capitalized. Pavement Group tears up Moss’ play as their entry to Steppenwolf’s new Garage Rep rotation that showcases several exciting young Chicago companies. This 75-minute crude, rude, yet ultimately fascinating drama tells the tale of two teenage boys (a gangly Alexander Lane and Matt Farabee , who doesn’t look a day over 14) growing up in Reagan’s America and diving head first into the world of punk rock. Over the ensuing year or so from hearing their first punk record, we get to watch the duo start a band, idolize girls along with more extreme (read: homeless) punks, and masturbate (a few times). Moss’ script has its holes, but director David Perez and his energetic cast railroad right over them. If you can stomach the scuzziness, this is one great coming-of-age story.

I was wondering which choices were Perez’s decisions or written in the play. Either way, the semi-presentational/realistic/fantastical world located in the Steppenwolf Garage space grabs you and doesn’t let go. Scenic designer Grant Sabin, who actually designed all three shows, has created something like a robo-tripping Glass Menagerie. The set is simple but allows for all sorts of manipulation, projection, and imagination. Nearly all of the products, including beer, comics, and erotic videos, are painted white and slapped with a simple eponymous label, a homage to punk classic Repo Man (which starred a young Emilio Estevez).

Also, all the actors wear roller skates (sort of a Sex Pistol’s Starlight Express)

Lane and Farabee have a great energy together. Somewhat zombified, Duck (Lane) sees himself as the ultimate judge of what is punk. Mickey (Farabee) is bright-eyed and impressionable, yet comes across as much more diverse than his close-minded counterpart. The cast is rounded out by Keith Neagle and Tanya McBride, who play multiple parts with gusto. One of the most bizarre dream/hallucination sequences I’ve ever seen features McBride in a bikini top and a Reagan mask. It’s an image that won’t leave me for a long time.

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punkplay_2_photobyPeterCoombs Punkplay 0062

Moss’ play covers a lot of territory; his characters trek the already epic journey of high school with the added objective of tearing down the bourgeois, Molly Ringwald culture that surrounds them. It’s a monumental task. Moss does a pretty good job of navigating this tumultuous world, but the script could be condensed. Mickey and Duck take in a pair of transients from Montreal at one point, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Also, Duck’s family situation is explained in the first scene when he moves in with Mickey (he was kicked out of his house), but not much information is given about Mickey’s familial life. You begin to wonder what his parents think about him harboring Duck in his room, which transforms from a stark suburban white to a vomit of graffiti. That missing relationship doesn’t take away much because the production wallows in abstraction, but it would be nice to know something about it (which might be a whole play in itself: groundedplay). Some of the longer speeches wax poetical, and audience interest drops. Some information is extraneous and some is muddled, which suggests Perez and Moss could make the show tighter.

Perez’s production shows how tough and confusing it can be to grow up, like “Breakfast Club” with more spike chokers. Duck and Mickey must face the fact that the punk scene might just be another high school subculture demanding conformity. Luckily, the Black Flag records give way to Sonic Youth, not Sum 41, and we all learn something about ourselves.

Rating: ★★★

Chicago Theater: "Xanadu" Reviews

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The hit Broadway-musical Xanadu joyously roller-skated its way onto Michigan Avenue last night at Drury Lane Water Tower

Here’s a collection of Xanadu theater reviews:

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* UPDATED * UPDATED * UPDATED * UPDATED * UPDATED * UPDATED * UPDATED *

 

Christopher Piatt  (TimeOut Chicago)

You don’t have to be gay to dig Xanadu; you need to be gay enough.  …(Book writer Douglas Carter) Beane‘s challenge was to stitch the virile, throbbing unapologetically awesome space-pop of Electric Light Orchestra into a credible evening.  The resulting airheaded, upbeat rock follies…has a deliriously screwball quality that channels the lush, berserk American entertainment of the 1930s.

Of the cast, haunted slumlord Larry Marshall adds an appealing noir quality.  Meanwhile, Elizabeth Stanley, the pop-princess chorine who skates and tells jokes, is the star of the goddamn universe. (Entire review here)

Rating: ««««« out of 6

 

Chris Jones (Tribune)

…A shrewdly good time, if you have a few pre-show drinks…

Yes, “Xanadu” knows it’s based on one of the worst movies ever made. It makes fun of jukebox musicals even as it takes its place among them. And with a comparable chutzpah to that which once catapulted Olivia Newton-John to incomprehensible global stardom, “Xanadu” manages to poke fun at the creative bankruptcy of the endless recycling of movies and nostalgia while doing precisely that itself. No armor is more protective than self-awareness.

Rating: ★★★                                                            Read entire review.

Hedy Weiss (Sun-Times)

Talent and fluff clash, but goofy grins prevail.

Let it never be said that playwright Douglas Carter Beane doesn’t possess a gleefully self-mocking sense of his own work. During the course of “Xanadu,” which received its high-energy, high-volume, post-Broadway debut here Wednesday at the winningly intimate Drury Lane Theatre Water Tower Place, he offers a fine assessment of the show. As one character exclaims: “This is like children’s theater for 40-year-old gay people.”    

Rating: Somewhat Recommended                         Read entire review.

Tom Williams (ChicagoCritic.com)

Let me start my stating that I hate disco music from the 1980’s and I think the Xanadu film may be the worst film of all-time or high on that list. Those biases have colored my take on Xanadu, the musical now at Drury Lane Water Tower Place produced by Broadway in Chicago. To me, there was nothing very cute or funny in this show. It tries too hard to be campy and satirical with dated 80’s referenced jokes. Filled with ELO tunes, leg warmers, roller skating, and a fake Australian accent, Xanadu came off as crass exploitive fluff that I found derivative.

As a consumer advocate, however, let me state that the audience at the opening night performance found the show to be a hilarious romp filed with bouncy, had-clapping songs filled with 80’s nostalgia. It is a feel-good show long on escapist entertainment and short on plot.

Rating: Somewhat Recommended                         Read entire review.

Fabrizio Almeida (NewCity)

I don’t know that the stage show offers any experience, let alone anything that might even qualify this as a fun and fabulous guilty pleasure. Clearly, the biggest problem is with Christopher Ashley’s direction. You can’t force camp, and yet every half-assed joke and lame visual pun has been overly telegraphed and repeated to the point of ineffectiveness. I did laugh a few times: Elizabeth Stanley’s breathy delivery of some stupid lines; the thick Australian accent. But overall I found the ninety-minute intermission-less stage experience tedious, dull and uninspired…………

…….clearly, this is a big misstep for Broadway in Chicago, and I don’t see ”Xanadu” running long or appealing to many theatergoers. Because if this camp-loving, ELO-listening, gay roller-skating lover of “Starlight Express” thought it was crap, what hope is there for you to like it?

Rating: Not Recommended                                        Read entire review.

Xanadu is fun for 5-year kids to 95-year old disco queens!