Wednesday, February 09, 2011

No Longer "Turning, Turning," Revamped 'Les Miserables' Isn't Quite As Revolutionary, but Remains a Glorious Success -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Les Miserables
25th Anniversary Tour
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru February 27, 2011

Having seen over 200 different Broadway musicals--not on Broadway but on stage--I believe Les Miserables is the best piece of musical theater ever created. (Though it isn't quite my favorite musical; I'll be writing about that one later this week.)

Based on the classic 19th century novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miz was originally created as a French musical in 1980--with music by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil--and opened in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987 with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer.

Willfully oblivious to great musicals until well into adulthood--or at least an age typically associated with it--I didn't see Les Miz until I caught it on Broadway in 1998. With an absolutely phenomenal score, including great anthems, ballads and recurring motifs, accompanying a compelling storyline and amazing scenery, I consider it--in its fullest form--one of the most perfectly-realized artistic creations of any kind.

Touring versions of the original Broadway production ran for years, but at some point after I caught it in 2002 and 2005 with the great Randal Keith as Jean Valjean (the lead character), the original production was retired, at least in America. For whatever reason, there isn't a even a DVD of the original Broadway or London stagings, just "concert" versions, but I would see high school versions of Les Miz--I haven't yet--and found Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire's in-the-round 2008 production of the show to be the best thing they've ever done (and that's saying a lot).

So when my current Broadway in Chicago season included a new "25th Anniversary Tour" version of Boublil & Schönberg's Les Miserables, featuring an all new staging and some revised orchestrations, I was pretty excited. I understand that economics mandate some scaling back of Broadway tours--though technically, this version hasn't played the Great White Way--and figured the source material was so great that the show would be wonderful in any form.

And indeed it is, if not quite as exquisite as in the past. If you've never seen Les Miz, you should definitely get down to Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre (or wait for it to hit your town) and if you are a longtime devotee of the piece, there's no reason to avoid this rendition. It remains a staggering work of art, and even with some scaling down of the sets--no turntable, a less intricate barricade--it is a bigger production than almost anything you'll see coming through Chicago for less than a month.

The price on my "Balcony Club" subscription ticket was $10.00, and even from the last row in the house, the artistic value I received in return was easily many times that much. Lawrence Clayton--the first African-American ever to play the lead at this level--was very good as Valjean, if not quite the best I've seen. Andrew Varela as Javert and Betsy Morgan as Fantine sang their showcase songs--"Stars" and "I Dreamed A Dream", respectively--as well as any Les Miz junkie could have hoped. Jenny Latimer as the grown Cosette and Justin Scott Brown as Marius were also notably good.

I can't say I noticed much variance in the orchestrations, although some of the lyrics and/or phrasings felt unfamiliar. At a full 3 hours, this wasn't an abridged version, but without the turntable and other past set pieces, some of the segues and even songs themselves felt rushed at times. The character of Gavroche and his "Little People" song was cut for no readily apparent reason, so [Spoiler Alert] the capture of Javert was dramatically diminished. And I missed the scrims telling me the years in which action was taking place.

None of this, nor anything else that made for a lesser Les Miz, will be much missed by those not intimately familiar with past editions. But I did notice that the emotional heft, particularly in Act II, seemed to wane a bit. Usually the Finale song, with the marching chorus of departed souls, gives me goose bumps. Last night it didn't.

While I respect producer Cameron Mackintosh's decision to freshen things for yet another Les Miz tour--supposedly Victor Hugo's own paintings served as an inspiration this time around--in the end, I can't say that it was necessary to mess with perfection. Or that the result improved on it.

Les Miserables is a @@@@@ piece of work that no musical theater fan should miss, but compared to its past glories, the current version is a 1/2@ less rousing.

No comments: