Regional Reviews: Chicago
Also see John's review of Shining City
The major difference fans will recognize is the loss of Napier's turntable, which allowed scene changes to occur cinematically, as if wiping from one shot to the next. Stagecraft technology has evolved enough in the past 25 years that there are other ways of accomplishing this without carting a big turntable across North America. Set designer Matt Kinley instead has set pieces efficiently rolling in and out from the wings, in front of images projected on a huge upstage screen. The projections are frequently just backdrops (of the paintings Victor Hugo created to illustrate his novel), but they also create impressive special effects at times. The revolutionaries marching to "One Day More" now appear to be marching down the streets of Paris, as the full-motion video behind them shows a street scene with changing perspective. In the act two sequence in the sewers beneath Paris, the characters are shown turning corners and moving through the labyrinth. There's even a moment in which projection and live action are merged so seamlessly that Valjean seems to walk through an archway in the projected sewer structure. Surprisingly, Javert's suicidal jump into the River Seine is no more effective here than in the original, but on balance the projections add a new dimension to the storytelling that is quite satisfying and a more than adequate replacement for Napier's turntable. True, in the second act battle scene, the new design is only able to show the action from one side of the barricadewith the turntable, we were able to look at it from both side. One could argue on the dramatic grounds though, that as our sympathies are with the students we should only see the action from their perspective.
Beyond the scenic changes, there's not much difference between this production and the original Broadway and touring productions. Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell have not re-interpreted the piece from Trevor Nunn's original direction. The most noticeable difference in interpretation is vocally in a few of the songs, which here are sung with more of a pop inflection than we're used to from previous recordings. Lawrence Clayton, the tour's very solid Jean Valjean, adds a few soulful grace notes to his stunning rendition of "Bring Him Home," and Chasten Harmon as Eponine turns "On My Own" into a full power ballad. Her Eponine is way more empowered and less waif-like than the character is usually played, but Ms. Harmon is an exceedingly watchable performer that I'm anxious to see again in a larger role. Betsy Morgan, playing Fantine, pushes her "I Dreamed a Dream" harder than you'd expect from a character so defeated at this point of the story to have the strength to do, but her Fantine is a strong woman and thus her fall becomes even more dramatic.
Just as with the production values, it would be impossible to get away with short-changing audiences on the vocal abilities of the Equity cast, as we can compare to the global all-star cast assembled for the symphonic recording. With that as a bar, Andrew Varela is as strong a Javert as any I've heard. 2009 Cincinnati Conservatory of Music graduate Justin Scott Brown is a handsome and stunning Marius, and Jeremy Hays a charismatic Enjolras. Newcomer Jenny Latimer puts her lovely soprano to good use as the older Cosette. The comic relief of the Thénardiers is handled most effectivelydryly and never too broadlyby Michael Kostroff and Shawna M. Hamic.
The team Mackintosh has assembled has put together a production that lives up to the memory of the original, while respectfully freshening it up just a bit. This touring production offers good reasons for longtime fans to revisit the piece from a slightly altered perspective while giving newcomers a chance to experience the show in a production equal in quality to those that have played around the world for the past quarter-century.
Les Misérables will play the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, through February 27, 2011. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago Box Offices, by phone at 800-775-2000, through Ticketmaster and online at www.broadwayinchicago.com. For more information on the tour, visit www.lesmis.com.