Intense emotions bolster epic production of ‘Les Miserables,’ and great cast brings it home

A show of sweeping scope and melodic beauty, this now-classic musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel is very epitome of theater you go to in order to get a good aesthetically induced cry,

SHARE Intense emotions bolster epic production of ‘Les Miserables,’ and great cast brings it home
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As Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell (left, with Gregory Lee Rodriguez) has superhuman voice control in “Les Miserables.”

Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

“Les Miserables” returns to town, again, in superb shape, spreading its underlying message that theater can contain multitudes. It can be epic and weighty, thematically spiritual, and unabashedly tear-jerking.

A show of sweeping scope and melodic beauty, this now-classic musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel has for well over three decades been the very epitome of theater you go to in order to experience oversized emotions, to get a good aesthetically induced cry, or perhaps a few of those, depending on your vulnerability to beautifully belted high notes at the point of a character’s death. There are a lot of deaths, and even more high notes.

It tells the tale of Jean Valjean, who starts as prisoner 24601, undergoes a religious conversion, dedicates his life to do-gooding — particularly to caring for the child of a woman he feels he wronged — and running from Inspector Javert, the rigidly upright policeman who makes it his mission to return Valjean to jail for tearing up his parole papers.

‘Les Miserables’

Untitled

When: Through March 5.

Where: Cadillac Palace Theater, 151 W. Randolph St.

Tickets: $55-$136

Info: broadwayinchicago.com

Running time: 2 hours and 55 minutes with one intermission


In addition to the spiritual, Christian angle and questioning the meaning of justice, you’ve also got political revolution, a plea against the exploitation of the poor, love at first sight, and — of course! — unrequited love. This is a show where our hero is a tenor, villains get great comic numbers, and the ingenues or ingenue-ish come and go with, on average, one starmaking solo each. Meanwhile, Javert, who means well but whose belief that people can’t change leads him astray, is a badass baritone who gets the grand stage effect.

I find “Les Mis” easy to poke fun at after the fact because it is just so much of what it is, so passionately passion-full. But make no mistake. For the length of this tremendously good touring production, “Les Miserables” scooped me up from the everyday and enveloped me in its gorgeousness. And I didn’t start laughing at how darn seriously it takes itself until the Claude-Michel Schonberg melodies ran through my head for hours after the curtain call. Give me “Les Mis” over “Phantom” every day of the week and twice on Wednesdays and Saturdays. But, you know, it’s not a competition.

This rendition of “Les Miserables” — which came to Chicago in 2019 before the pandemic interrupted the tour — is the new, but no longer really new, version of the show, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell.

With Matt Kinley’s set design, the iconic turntable is no more, which turns out just fine. The playing is just as dynamic and fundamentally more visceral. There’s more physical violence depicted, and the characters confront each other rather than swirl around as much.

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Preston Truman Boyd is an excellent Inspector Javert.

Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The lovely projections are inspired by Victor Hugo’s own drawings. (Who knew?) They’re mildly impressionistic mostly, occasionally more abstract. They’re universally Earth-toned, and Paule Constable’s lighting is dimmer, creating very painterly stage images.

The sewer scene really takes full advantage of the ability for projections to take us somewhere. And the show remains a state-of-the-art spectacle, with no sacrifices made for the barricade sequence, and a climactic flying effect.

All importantly, the cast is great. As a thinner-than-usual Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell has seemingly super-human voice control; you sure can’t tell where his falsetto starts and ends. His “Bring Him Home” is the highest highlight of the night — piercingly, painfully pretty.

Preston Truman Boyd is an excellent Javert, ramrod-straight physically as if he’s always at attention, and with numbers sung with such passion that they come off a bit like love songs to his own certainty.

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Lovesick Eponine is played by Christine Heeson Hwang.

Matthew Murphy & Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

The clearest standouts among the excellent ensemble are Christine Heeson Hwang as Eponine and Matt Crowle as Thernardier. In a trench coat and beret, spotlighted to the point of isolation, Hwang’s contemporary-sounding “On My Own” feels separate, a work of art all … on its own.

And Crowle, a Chicago actor, is the darkest, most bottom-feeding Thernardier I’ve ever seen, as well as the most dancer-like. Light on his feet and flexible, he slinks. Seriously, you can’t help thinking of a rat, which is just right.

So go. Be transported. Get caught up in the tidal wave of emotion. Cry if you are inclined. Hum the music for days on end. And then, if you love that feeling, go again when it comes back. Which, eventually, it will.

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