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: The Literati (Chicago dell’Arte)

Low Budget, Highbrow Hijinks

 

 
Chicago dell’Arte presents:
 
The Literati
 
by Ned Record, Derek Jarvis and Nick Freed
at RBP Rorschach Theatre, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When you walk into the RBP Rorschach Theatre, the first thing you will notice is the lack of chairs. Instead, a dozen or so pillows are strewn about the floor where audience members are instructed to sit. It makes for some leg cramping, but it also pulls you back to preschool story time. And that’s basically what you are about to see, a highbrow version of children’s theatre. Fortunately the end result is far from elementary.

This certainly fits with Chicago dell’Arte’s mantra: “Art for the sake of everyone.” The trio of performers—who also wrote the show—didn’t have to tackle 25 of literature’s most revered works in a manner that is both easily digestible and entertaining. They could have force fed Great Expectations, Frankenstein or Don Quixote down our throats, reenacting each tale with painstaking authenticity. But with The Literati, the interactive series of fives plays within a play, Chicago dell’Arte wisely tempers the academic and the artistic with the comedic.

On paper, the show sounds a bit complex. The company has created 25 short plays based on 25 great works of literature, including the three aforementioned tales. The plays are divided up into categories such as “Epics” and “Classics.” Audience members are plucked from the audience and are instructed to roll a die. The number on the die corresponds with a play under each category. Whatever is rolled forms the lineup for the night.

Each short play utilizes a different form or genre of storytelling. For example, when the group performs Charles DickensGreat Expectations, the trio adds a sci-fi twist, casting cold-hearted Estella (Ned Record) as a robot. Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence is played as a rock opera, which includes the song “Hot Cousin.” The show I saw ended on Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale Les Miserables. Chicago dell’Arte plays the piece as a French farce with police inspector Javert chasing protagonist Jean Valjean Benny Hill style.

Layered on top of the mini plays is a larger meta piece. Company member Derek Jarvis is the jovial but serious master of ceremonies who introduces to the audience the concept of the show. It is his mission, as he states, to synthesize the academic and the artistic. Meanwhile, company members Nick Freed and Ned Record assume the roles of goofy, childlike rogues who debase Jarvis’ lofty aspirations.

With a strong understanding of the source material and brilliant acting chops, Chicago dell’Arte pulls off this marathon of a show. What is most impressive is how there never once is a delay or downtime between pieces. The three manage to weave an uninterrupted narrative throughout The Literati, working in smooth transitions from classic to classic, while casually returning to the meta play throughout.

The show has longevity. Because of the format, there is only a 4 percent chance that any two performances will be exactly alike. There also is a fair amount of improvisational banter throughout, so it is hard to imagine that any classic will have a completely identical retelling from performance to performance.

The Literati might not be staged in a fancy theater, but what it lacks in seating, it makes up for in creativity, talent and heart.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Literati runs April 9th to May 1st (Thursday through Sunday). Run time approximately 90-minutes with a 10-minute intermission. Ticket price: $15 (suggested donation).  Performances: Thursdays, Friday and Saturday @ 8pm, Saturday at 10:30pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Location: RBP Rorschach, 4001 N Ravenswood.

 

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Wednesday Wordplay – Bette Davis and toilet mummies

Lots of intuitive quotes this week, including ones from Bette Davis, Victor Hugo, Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi.  And a funny quote from Edith Sitwell. Enjoy.


[Mostly] Inspirational Quotes

There are new words now that excuse everybody. Give me the good old days of heroes and villains. the people you can bravo or hiss. There was a truth to them that all the slick credulity of today cannot touch.
            — Bette Davis, The Lonely Life, 1962

I have often wished I had time to cultivate modesty… But I am too busy thinking about myself.
            — Edith Sitwell, As quoted in The Observer (30 April 1950)

Good habits result from resisting temptation.
            — Ancient Proverb

An ounce of loyalty is worth a pound of cleverness.
            — Elbert Hubbard

There is always more misery among the lower classes than there is humanity in the higher.
            — Victor Hugo, ‘Les Miserables,’ 1862

Joy is prayer – Joy is strength – Joy is love – Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.
            — Mother Teresa

You can’t turn back the clock. But you can wind it up again.
            — Bonnie Prudden

Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress.
            — Mahatma Gandhi

Don’t gamble; take all your savings and buy some good stock and hold it till it goes up, then sell it. If it don’t go up, don’t buy it.
            — Will Rogers

If I have learnt anything, it is that life forms no logical patterns. It is haphazard and full of beauties which I try to catch as they fly by, for who knows whether any of them will ever return?
            — Margot Fonteyn

It’s not your painting anymore. It stopped being your painting the moment that you finished it.
            — Jeff Melvoin, Northern Exposure, Fish Story, 1994

Real, constructive mental power lies in the creative thought that shapes your destiny, and your hour-by-hour mental conduct produces power for change in your life. Develop a train of thought on which to ride. The nobility of your life as well as your happiness depends upon the direction in which that train of thought is going.
            — Laurence J. Peter

It is a sadness of growing older that we lose our ardent appreciation of what is new and different and difficult.
            — Elizabeth Aston, The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy, 2005

Just because you are blind, and unable to see my beauty doesn’t mean it does not exist.
            — Margaret Cho, Margaret Cho’s weblog, 03-23-06

Consult your friend on all things, especially on those which respect yourself. His counsel may then be useful where your own self-love might impair your judgment.
            — Seneca

Never chase a lie. Let it alone, and it will run itself to death.
            — Lyman Beecher

Do not listen to those who weep and complain, for their disease is contagious.
            — Og Mandino

I feel good about taking things to Goodwill and actually, I do like shopping at Goodwill. It’s so cheap that it feels like a library where I am just checking things out for awhile until I decide to take them back.
            — April Foiles

Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it.
            — Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks, 1965

We are rich only through what we give, and poor only through what we refuse.
            — Anne-Sophie Swetchine

Oh for a book and a shady nook…
            — John Wilson

The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.
            — Ralph Waldo Emerson

Whenever evil befalls us, we ought to ask ourselves, after the first suffering, how we can turn it into good. So shall we take occasion, from one bitter root, to raise perhaps many flowers.
            — Leigh Hunt

I have never been especially impressed by the heroics of people who are convinced they are about to change the world. I am more awed by those who struggle to make one small difference after another.
            — Ellen Goodman

 


 

Urban Dictionary

 

Toilet Mummy

When someone is so concerned about toilet seat germs, they cover the seat with half a roll of toilet paper, leaving it to appear like it has been mummified.

"I was going to use that stall to drop a deuce, but somebody left it looking like a toilet mummy."

Recrap

To sum up a discussion composed largely of useless bullshit.

Person 1: "Tell me how the staff meeting went."
Person 2: "Allow me to recrap…"

Wednesday Wordplay – Bob Dylan meets Victor Hugo

When there’s snow on the ground, I like to pretend I’m walking on clouds.
            — Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka and Toshihiro Kawabata, Animal Crossing

No one has a finer command of language than the person who keeps his mouth shut.
            — Sam Rayburn

The things you own end up owning you.
            — Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club, 1996

What’s money? A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.
            — Bob Dylan

The greatest good you can do for another is not just share your riches, but to reveal to him his own.
            — Benjamin Disraeli

In giving advice, seek to help, not please, your friend.
            — Solon

What a grand thing, to be loved! What a grander thing still, to love!
            — Victor Hugo

A great preservative against angry and mutinous thoughts, and all impatience and quarreling, is to have some great business and interest in your mind, which, like a sponge shall suck up your attention and keep you from brooding over what displeases you.
            — Joseph Rickaby

Acceptance is not submission; it is acknowledgment of the facts of a situation. Then deciding what you’re going to do about it.
            — Kathleen Casey Theisen

Silence is golden when you can’t think of a good answer.
            — Muhammad Ali, "More Than a Hero"

To the soul, there is hardly anything more healing than friendship.
          
Thomas Moore

Review: Lyric Opera’s “Ernani”

Masterful Execution of a Verdi Unknown

 Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Ernani 10/24/09.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents

Ernani

At the Civic Opera House
By Giuseppe Verdi
Based on Victor Hugo’s tragedy Hernani
Libretto by Francesco Maria Piave
Conducted by Renato Palumbo
Stage directed by Jose Maria Condemi
Thru November 23rd (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Ernani09 The Lyric Opera presents Ernani, an opera written by Giuseppe Verdi and first performed in 1844. The Italian opera with projected English subtitles tells the tale of Elvira’s suitors, all fighting for her love: Ernani, Don Carlo-King of Spain and Don Ruy Gomez de Silva. The outlaw, Ernani storms Silva’s castle to abduct Elvira. He runs into the King and an Elvira abduction already in progress. Silva enters furious that his fiancé is being double-abducted in his own home. In love with Ernani, Elvira escapes her marriage to Silva by becoming a hostage of the King’s. Because Silva keeps him from being arrested, Ernani pledges his life to him. In Ernani terms, this promise means Silva gets to decide when Ernani will die. So, after the King pardons everyone and orders Elvira to marry Ernani, who shows up as the wedding crasher? Silva appears and asks Ernani, “poison or dagger?” Ernani chooses a dagger, stabs himself and dies in Elvira’s arms.

A brief announcement at the beginning of Act II informs the audience that Salvatore Licitra (Ernani) begs forgiveness at his inability to sing at his optimal level. Because of the faulty microphone, it’s unclear what the issue is. The person next to me asks, “did he say tracheotomy?” I’m certain it is a trace of bronchitis or another ailment. No matter what Licitra’s struggle is, his performance is stellar. Only in duets with the powerful soprano performance of Sondra Radvanovsky (Elvira) did it occur to me that Licitra might be in a challenging match. Along with the King (Boaz Daniel) and Silva (Giacomo Prestia), the opera is sung magnificently. Adding to the grandeur of the performance, set and costume designer Scott Marr uses the huge cast adorned in finery or cloaked in black to contrast a wedding from the catacombs. With multiple wardrobe and set changes, the dynamic production is eye candy to the audience. Elvira’s costumes, designed by Donna Langman, are particularly exquisite.

 

Ernani01 Ernani08

Ernani is a must see for its magnificent performances, beautiful costumes, and elaborate sets. The actual opera? Not so much. Verdi wrote Ernani early in his career at age 31. It doesn’t have the memorable arias of his later works, like; La Traviata, Aida, Rigoletto and Falstaff. The story is clunky. In Act II, Elvira tells Ernani she decided to marry Silva when she heard he was dead. What? I want Ernani to ask, or rather sing, “what happened during the intermission that made you think I was dead?” It’s also unclear why these three men all want Elvira when it’s obvious she only wants Ernani. Is it because she dresses nice? I don’t get it. And because it’s an opera, I’m ready for a tragic ending to a love story. Possible alternative endings after Ernani and Elvira’s wedding: Silva kills Ernani, the king kills Ernani, Elvira chokes on a piece of cake and because Ernani thinks she’s dead, he kills himself, she spits out cake realizes he’s dead and kills herself. But Ernani’s suicide because he promised Silva, his nemesis, that he would? Elvira totes around a dagger threatening to kill herself throughout the show but ultimately doesn’t as Ernani dies in her arms. Unsatisfying, Verdi!

Rating: «««

 

More: Watch the Ernani video trailer.     |     Listen to Ernani scene commentary.

 

Ernani04 

Pictures by Dan Rest

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