“Les Misérables without the turntable? How is that possible?”
It surprised me the number of times I heard this question when I told people about this tour over the past few days. The thunderous original production, which opened in London in 1985, captivated our hearts for decades. I saw Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original staging twice: once in Detroit when my parents took me to see the unforgettable first national tour (which starred Chicago diva Hollis Resnik as Fantine and Tony-winner Victoria Clark as Madame Thénardier) and then in my late teens when I saw it in London (and was lucky enough to catch the original Eponine, Frances Ruffelle, who just happened to be revisiting her role for a few months).
Yes: the giant turntable, which spun that huge barricade so we could see it from all sides during the fighting scenes, was central to the staging. But not essential. This mega-musical’s material stands on its own.
This entirely sung-through adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic novel — which follows fugitive Jean Valjean’s journey to escape his past and seek redemption, with most of the action taking place during the cloud of an unsuccessful rebellion in 1832 Paris — is one of the most beloved musicals of the last few decades. I’m sure many of you can sing large chunks of Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s powerballad-heavy score — or at least the tragic Fantine’s theme song, thanks to Ms. Susan Boyle. Les Mis is part of our pop culture.
So, while I was anticipating some different staging, sets and costumes in this “25th Anniversary Tour,” I wasn’t expecting to feel like I was experiencing this show for the first time.
Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell (why does it always take two directors to do this show?) have delivered a completely fresh interpretation, making this a more resourceful, cinematic and propulsive Les Mis. Gone is the chain-banging chain gang that opens up the show; in its place the scrim lifts to reveal a tableau of weary fugitives oaring a giant vessel — one of many surprisingly powerful new visuals.
Even Fantine’s big song, “I Dreamed a Dream,” which you’d think has been done to death (pardon the pun), is given a forceful, pleading interpretation (by the fabulous Betsy Morgan), rather than the typical cry-on-the-stage-defeated rendition.
Stunning projections, inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, effectively set the locale without beating us over the head.
And while barricade isn’t as imposing as before, it’s still a sight to behold. However, (SPOILER!) poor Gavroche is forced to die offstage, since the set piece can’t spin around to allow us to see him cross enemy lines. A major misstep, but overcome by the strength of the whole.
Still, any production of Les Mis would be undermined by a less-than-perfect Jean Valjean, and Lawrence Clayton more than meets the demands. This is not an impersonation of Colm Wilkinson, as many prior Valjeans have, quite frankly, been. Clayton’s Valjean wears his guilt on his sleeve. His debt in life will always go unpaid, and it’s not until the final moments that he finds true release. That’s not to mention his singing of the score, which is brave, soulful and spine-tingling. His “Bring Him Home” is a masterclass in song phrasing.
I could devote paragraphs to to rest of the supporting cast (including standout performances from Shawna M. Hamic and Michael Kostroff as the delightfully devious Thénardiers), but I’ll just say they’re uniformly excellent. Except for Chaston Harmon as Eponine. Not only did she have some significant pitch problems with her big number “On My Own,” but she lacks any sense of vulnerability — which, as we all know, is essential to this role. But I never liked Eponine anyway, so this wasn’t as big a problem as it could have been.
To top off this wonderfully reimagined production, new orchestrations by Chris Jahnke (who orchestrated Legally Blonde, The Musical, of all things) give the show a fresh, contemporary sound by toning down the hokey, synthesized accompaniment that seeped through John Cameron’s original arrangements, and coloring it with percussion and brass.
CTA Index Rating: 10 out of 10 (We have a world-class production of a universally-loved musical here in Chicago, featuring an excellent leading-man performance. See it.)
“Les Misérables” plays through Feb. 27 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. More info here >