‘Les Miserables’ a passionate success, from the epic scale to the small details

Touring production tackles the huge Victor Hugo narrative with a laser focus.

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Nick Cartell plays the former convict Jean Valjean in the touring production of “Les Miserables” now at the Cadillac Palace Theatre.

Matthew Murphy

It’s been well over 30 years since the now-iconic logo of “Les Miserables” — a sad-faced urchin set before a tattered flag — announced the London premiere of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s sprawling take on Victor Hugo’s doorstop novel.

The musical seemed an unlikely hit for numerous reasons. Among them: It is about the French revolution that nobody really remembers, i.e. not the one with Marie Antoinette. It is almost three hours long. Its score requires two male leads with the stamina of Olympic sprinters and the endurance of Olympic marathoners. And if we’re being honest, who among us has ever read Victor Hugo voluntarily?

“Les Miserables” has endured because when done right, it is magnificent. It is a sprawling swath of the human condition in all its ugly, beautiful, clueless wisdom. In the policeman Inspector Javert’s generation-spanning hunt of ex-convict Jean Valjean, “Les Mis” provides a prolonged surge of clashing passions. Schönberg’s score captures that clash with a sublime sound, his notes like brushstrokes culminating in a whole that moves from shimmering to squalid and back.

‘Les Miserables’

‘Les Mis”

When: Through July 27

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph

Tickets: $35 - $105

Info: Broadwayinchicago.com

Run time: 2 hours, 55 minutes, with one 15 minute intermission

In the latest North American tour (officially billed as Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Boublil and Schönberg’s “Les Miserables”), directors Laurence Connor and James Powell capture every color and tone, every instance of existential despair and transcendent hope. In Boublil’s intricate score and Herbert Kretzmer’s lyrics (original French text by Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel, with additional material by James Fenton, and adapted by Trevor Nunn and John Caird), the smallest details are sumptuous, from the dripping chasms of Paris’ underground sewers to the radiant allure of long-dead loved ones beckoning toward a golden afterlife.

The most obvious difference between this tour and others that have been through Chicago lies in Matt Kinley’s set and projection design. Inspired by Victor Hugo’s paintings, they provide twisting, cavernous underground passageways, flickering watercolor skies and rushing rivers. They don’t always work with Paule Constable’s lighting — murky dimness is atmospheric in shadowy street corners but a problem when it’s so dark you can’t quite tell what you’re seeing.

But that is an extremely minor problem: “Mis” is not to be missed. Josh Davis’ rigid Javert is hollow-eyed in his obsession, a deeply puritanical zealot for law and order who can lament the death of a child in one moment and wave the tiny corpse away the next. His second act “Soliloquy” is mesmerizing: The song itself compresses a long-night-of-the-soul in under three minutes and close to three octaves. Davis brings the anguish like Job on the last night in the belly of the whale. It’s stunning.

As Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell is every inch as commanding. The prayerful “Bring Him Home” requires a crystalline falsetto that stops just shy of castrati range and a vocal timbre that hits those nearly impossible heights with gossamer delicacy and steely strength. Cartell does both, with barely a stop for breath.

Hugo’s pageant of supporting characters run the gamut from saintly bishops to rapist seamen. As professional scallywag innkeepers Thenardier and his garish wife Madame Thenardier, Jimmy Smagula and Allison Guinn are simultaneously repulsive and admirably adaptable. It’s tough not to smile at their brazen opportunism, be it boosting the silver service at a bourgeoisie wedding or the shoes from an unsuspecting inn guest.

As the innkeepers’ daughter Eponine, Paige Smallwood puts unrequited love in hi-def with “On My Own,” one of the best alto-range belters written in the past 40 years. Mary Kate Moore’s doomed Fantine is fittingly angelic. And as Fantine’s daughter Cosette, Jillian Butler is all sweetness and fluttery innocence.

“Les Miserables” swerves over and over again from nihilism to hope, often using the same melodic hooks to evoke both. Javert’s endgame “Soliloquy” echoes Valjean’s first act “Soliloquy,” both men facing their innermost demons to drastically different ends. The second act’s all-female round “Turning” shows women going back to work in the wake of a war with a refrain mimicking the chorus of prostitutes in the first act’s “Lovely Ladies.”

Beyond the score, the connective tissue in “Les Mis” is the pay-it-forward goodness that begins with Valjean stealing a pair of stolen silver candlesticks and follows his lifelong good works thereafter, as well as the impact of his life on Javert, the misguided policeman bent on punishing him. It takes a mighty confluence of talent to pull off such a huge narrative with such a laser focus. More than three decades on, “Les Miserables” remains explosive.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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