Raising the bar on ‘Les Miserables’
BY HEDY WEISS Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org November 17, 2012 5:32PM
"Les Miserables" runs through Dec. 2 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.
When: Through Dec. 2
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Info: (800) 775-2000; www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Updated: December 19, 2012 1:21PM
Barely five weeks before the star-studded film version of “Les Miserables” is to be released, a stellar national touring production of the musical is storming the stage of the Cadillac Palace Theatre here. Producer Cameron Mackintosh and the other powers that be behind this masterpiece of a show have, if anything, raised the bar.
The soaring vocal power of the current cast is so dazzling that it would easily wow audiences at Chicago’s Lyric Opera just a few blocks away. And while “Les Mis” has thrived in London’s West End and on Broadway (and beyond) since 1985, it is a good bet that this epic musical will eventually find its way onto the stages of the world’s opera houses. Based on the sprawling novel by Victor Hugo and set afire with the lushly extravagant score by Claude-Michel Schonberg (with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer, and an original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natal), it is grand opera by any measure.
After all, here is a tale of injustice and redemption, sacrifice and reward, innocence and experience, brutality and faith, greed and generosity, and the power of love to transform the human spirit. And as it moves from the prisons, factories and brothels of early 19th century France, to the Paris cafes where students are beginning to find their revolutionary voice, the ramparts where death is often the reward for idealism, and the sewers where thieves hungrily pick over corpses, it captures the full tragedy of the poor and disenfranchised, and the true nature of sinners and the sinned against.
At its center is Jean Valjean (Peter Lockyer), the man sent away for 19 years of hard labor for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving child, and his almost superhuman struggle to redeem his life despite the continual interference of Javert (Andrew Varela), the relentlessly cruel law-and-order figure who pursues him at every turn. Lockyer, younger than many actors playing Valjean, is a very natural actor who brings searing intensity to the morally questioning in “Who Am I?,” and to the prayerful, stratospheric beauty of “Bring Him Home.” Varela’s probing versions of “Stars,” and a final “Soliloquy,” are stunningly sung and infused with conviction.
The students, led by the impassioned Enjolras (Jason Forbach) and the romantic Marius (Max Quinlan), who are backed by Weston Wells Olson and Joseph Spieldenner, make the fierce idealism of youth palpable in the glorious blend of their voices. And those broadly comic, money-grubbing innkeepers, the Thenardiers (Timothy Gulan and Shawna M. Hamic) are deliciously gross, even as their fearless, streetwise daughter (winningly played and sung by Briana Carlson-Goodman), possesses genuine honesty and a selflessness in her love for Marius. Joshua Colley is a tiny but feisty urchin, Gavroche.
Betsy Morgan brings a saintliness to Fantine, the much-abused young woman who dies trying to provide for her young daughter, Cosette (played as a child by Erin Cearlock, who possesses an uncanny voice). Adopted and protected by Valjean, it is the grown-up Cosette (the silvery-voiced if somewhat stiff Lauren Wiley), who bewitches Marius.
Throughout, the pristine diction and sheer vocal beauty of the ensemble sends chills down the spine, with the orchestra, led by Lawrence Goldberg, operatic in force. While directors Laurence Connor and James Powell are wholly faithful to the Trevor Nunn and John Caird original, they have added some clever touches and bring a churning energy to the storytelling. And though I am still not entirely at ease with the overlap of standard scenery and projections (a blend of Hugo’s drawings and archival photos) devised for the 25th anniversary production, it produces its striking moments. But the spectacle is almost beside the point here. As the lyrics for one of the show’s songs ask: “Do you hear the people sing?” Well, yes, indeed you do.