Some call it a masterpiece, others call it an overreach in cramming Victor Hugo’s great saga into three hours of stage time. Regardless of critics’ personal opinions, there is no doubt that Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s musical opera of Les Miserables ranks in the top ten pantheon of the greatest shows of all time. From the musical’s humble beginnings as a French concept album (my personal favorite recording) to the current mega tour headed by Ramin Karminloo which will anchor back on Broadway in the coming months, the fan base for this show is like no other. And whether one loved or loathed the film version, no one can deny that it too was a game changer in how movie musicals will now be filmed.
With the production rights now becoming a bit more available, we are sure to have our over saturation of this show. Luckily, before that happens, Rachel Rockwell has put her stamp on Les Mis making it another triumph for Drury Lane. The current production is based on the revival, which shortened by the show by approximately thirty minutes, re-orchestrated the majority of songs and attempted to clarify some of the secondary character relationships. Ms. Rockwell takes it one step further and reincorporates the concept of God as a major character.
The story of Jean Valjean and his rival Inspector Javert have become more than fictional characters in Hugo’s novel, but metaphors for right and wrong, good and evil, friend and foe, misunderstanding and forgiveness. Ms. Rockwell latches onto these notions and runs with them, however some of the cast she employs here needs to catch up.
For her Valjean, Ms. Rockwell has cast one of the greatest, Ivan Rutherford who has played the role over two thousand times in most every incarnation and whose voice literally soars out of the confines of Drury Lane. Mr. Rutherford is always engaged and carries with him a presence that the younger cast members new to this complex work surely rely on. Suffice to say that Mr. Rutherford brings a “Ted Neeley” like quality to his version of Valjean in both style and form which makes his performance all the more engaging.
His rival/soul mate Javert is also impeccably played by Quentin Earl Darrington whose rendition of Stars became the highlight of the evening but whose Peter-Pan like suicide needs a bit of a restaging.
In fact, vocally this is one of the most well sung (Jennie Sophia’s I Dreamed a Dream and Christina Nieves’ On My Own) musically perfect productions of Les Miserables you will ever hear, with kudos to Roberta Duchak’s musical direction and Ben Johnson’s spot-on conducting, as the Dury Lane Orchestra never sounded better.
And to that end, if you want to see a Chicago actor put his own stamp on a role you may have thought you have known, wait till you behold the brilliance of Mark David Kaplan’s spectacular performance as Thenardier, whose Jeff award is awaiting him in the wings. If fact, our Chicago actors do give this production the truth it so longs for including a magnificent Emily Rohm as Cossette, Travis Taylor’s big baritone Enjorlas, Skyler Adams’ haunting Marius and Matthew Uzarraga’s utter worldly Gavroche.
With all these big Brava performances, it was the subtle David Girolmo’s portrayal of the Bishop that needs to recognized as he has done with the role what no other has been able to do as he brings the show full circle at the Finale. I defy anyone to have a dry eye after Mr. Girolmo gives Valjean a simple nod of acceptance as they enter Heaven.
What is missing in this Les Miserables is more a result of the rewrites by the musical’s creators for the revival where much of the second act feels more like a concert version that a fully staged show. The placement of the songs and the rapid changes in character development in this new adaptation render most of the second act questionable (why does Javert commit suicide?) to at times almost laughable (why does Valjean die at all?). This was not the case in the original. But that won’t stop, nor should it, anyone from seeing musical theatre in one of its finest forms.
Technically this production plays it safe with Scot Davis’ scenic design while Greg Hofmann’s gorgeously hued lighting gives more authenticity to Sage Marie Carter’s projections. That authenticity seemed to be thrown out the window with the bizarre and ill fitting wigs selected by Rick Jarvis.
The takeaway of Les Miserables has always been bigger than the musical or novel itself. It is the simple notion of one person making the world better for another. Regardless of our past sins, we, like Valjean seek redemption. That, just like this great score, seems something sent directly from Heaven.
The performance schedule for Les Misérables is as follows: Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. ($45), Thursdays at 1:30 p.m. ($45) and 8 p.m. ($50), Fridays at 8 p.m. ($60), Saturdays at 5 p.m. ($60), and 8:45 p.m. ($60), and Sundays at 2 p.m. ($60), and 6 p.m. ($55). Lunch and dinner theatre packages are available. Student group tickets start as low as $30 and Senior Citizens start at $40 for matinees and $55 for a matinee luncheon package. For reservations, call the Drury Lane Theatre box office at 630.530.0111, call TicketMaster at 800.745.3000 or visit www.drurylane.com. For calendar information visit www.theatreinchicago.com
Photo Credit: Brett Beiner