Monday, November 19, 2012

C'est Magnifique: The Power and the Glory of Les Misérables -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Les Misérables
Cadillac Palace Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 2

Christmas Day will bring the opening of the movie version of Les Misérables. I intend to see it and hope it does justice to two of the greatest artistic creations of the past 150 years: Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel, which I’ve admittedly never read, and the stage musical on which the movie is more directly based.

First staged in English in London in 1985 and on Broadway in 1987, Les Miz stands as one of the most popular musicals ever created, and in my opinion, the very best. (Although it did not quite top My 100 Favorite Stage Musicals of All-Time list, I believe it is the art form’s greatest achievement.)

Les Miz has played in Chicago numerous times since its creation and is back again at the Cadillac Palace. It is still on its 25th Anniversary Tour, a bit revamped and slightly downscaled from earlier touring versions, but still rather majestic nonetheless.

I was originally a bit slow on the Les Miz uptake, ignoring chances to see early tours in Chicago and L.A., but first saw the show on Broadway in 1998 and on multiple tours since. So I’ve seen it at full tilt, but also thoroughly enjoyed a regional in-the-round staging at Marriott Theatre Lincolnshire and even a high school version I caught last year at New Trier.

In February 2011, I saw the current touring version—with a different cast for the most part than the one now in town—also at the Cadillac Palace. Though it was a magnificent reminder of the greatness of Les Misérables, it felt slightly lesser than past productions.

That still might be true with the rendition now playing to full houses in Chicago, but if Les Miz isn’t quite as good as it once was—and my eroding memory doesn't allow me to remember many specific shortcomings—it is still better than almost anything else you can see on a theatrical stage.

Given Chris Jones’ rave review in the Tribune, rather than it just being my perception that this rendition is particularly great from beginning to end, it seems an even more discerning critic believes that the current production and cast are especially scintillating.

For all the Miz-ciples who care about these things, the only latter-day concession of consequence that I noticed in again witnessing the 25th Anniversary Tour is that without the stage turntable of old, the “Look Down” chants within the Prologue at the beginning aren’t as boisterous or as menacing as I remember them. (The prisoners are now seen rowing, rather than pounding the ground.)

Otherwise, for whatever Les Misérables may no longer be, as exemplified from the stage and orchestra pit of the Cadillac Palace, it is utterly majestic.

Every song in the show is excellent. The full orchestra made Claude-Michel Schönberg’s score sound exquisite. And while I am impressed by anyone who can sing in tune—thus my commonly being quite laudatory about talented folks in community theater productions—a Broadway-caliber voice (and many in this Equity cast have Broadway credits) goes beyond being tuneful. For lack of a better way to explain it, there is a richness to the vocal timbre, with the ability to not only emote, but be truly evocative.

And singer after singer sounded absolutely sensational. The choral or group numbers—the Prologue mentioned above, “At the End of the Day,” “Master of the House,” “The People's Song,” “One Day More” —were sublime and the solo or duet numbers—“I Dreamed a Dream,” “Stars,” “On My Own,” “Bring Him Home” and more—were uniformly every bit as good as I could have hoped.

Peter Lockyer is a bit slighter a Jean Valjean than I've usually seen, but was quite strong of voice, as was Andrew Varela as Javert (I'm pretty sure Russell Crowe won't sing that good in the movie). Briana Carlson-Goodman delivered an astonishing “On My Own” as Eponine and Timothy Gulan & Shawna M. Hamic made for fun Thernardiers. Max Quinlan, who's done a lot of work in Chicago area theaters, was excellent as Marius, Lauren Wiley complemented him well as Cosette, Betsy Morgan (introduced as a Chicagoan during the post-show appeal for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS; hence the signed Playbill shown above) was a stellar Fantine and Jason Forbach as Enjolras was just one more example of great voices up and down the cast.

Tickets for this rather brief run of Les Miz appear to be rather scarce and/or pricey. If you have to wait for the movie, so be it. But if you love this musical and/or want to see it the way it deserves to be seen, by all means, don’t Miz it.

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