Although I have lost count of how many times I’ve seen “Les Miserables” in all its many incarnations over the years, the show’s official statisticians report that since its world premiere in London in 1985 it has been seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and 22 languages. And that very likely eclipses the number of people who have read the massive Victor Hugo novel upon which it is based.

‘LES MISERABLES’
Recommended
When: Through Oct. 29
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre,
151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $55 – $180
Info: (800) 775-2000
www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Run time: 2 hours and 50 minutes
with one intermission

Matt Shingledecker (center) plays Enjolras, the student rebel, in the national touring production of “Les Miserables.” (Photo: Matthew Murphy)

Along the way, producer Cameron Mackintosh has taken no shortcuts in mounting his revivals and touring productions of what, by any measure, is a monumental musical on the scale of a grand opera. He also has seen to it that innovations, particularly in set design, have kept pace with contemporary stagecraft. And he fully respects the fact that as the decades roll by there is still a “first encounter” with the show for many in the audience. The musical’s lavish score — the work of composer Claude-Michel Schonberg (with English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer from the original French text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel) — may be widely known (and even parodied). But expectations for the live performance remain high.

The current touring edition of the show, directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, is unquestionably visually stunning, with the spectacular sets (inspired by Hugo’s own evocative paintings) created for the show’s 25th anniversary revival in 2009 and designed by Matt Kinley, with projections by Fifty-Nine Productions. And the cast is packed with power voices. But often the whole undertaking feels more intent on flashiness, and by hitting the big moments with extra force and using far more explicit violence than I recall from earlier stagings, the story loses its all-important emotional heart. Also lost at times are many lyrics — sometimes drowned out by an overamplified orchestra, and sometimes simply sacrificed to beautiful tone. Ironically, it is the children in the show whose diction is most precise.

In addition, the passage of time in this epic tale of injustice, inequality, greed, redemption and love gets somewhat muddled as it moves through three distinct periods: From 1815, when an angry, embittered Jean Valjean is released from prison after serving 19 years of hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child; to the early 1820s, by which time Valjean has grown into a model citizen who continues to witness the cruelty of French society, and is unable to shake his nemesis, police officer Javert, and finally to 1832, when he plays a valiant role as an unexpected outsider in the Paris Uprising by student revolutionaries, during which he saves the life of the young man beloved by his adopted daughter.

Nick Cartell’s vibrant, wide-ranging tenor brings full rage to the monumental first act Soliloquy, and carries through to the self-questioning “Who Am I?” and the gorgeous, prayer-like “Bring Him Home.” And Josh Davis’ formidable baritone rings out in the anthemic “Stars” and the Soliloquy that prefaces his suicide (whose fancy visuals are more confusing than effective).

Jillian Butler’s lovely soprano is complemented by her intelligent rendering of the grown-up Cosette, who knows she is being kept from crucial secrets by her “father,” Valjean. And she makes her passion for the well-to-do student rebel, Marius (the sweetly innocent Joshua Grosso), most believable.  Matt Singledecker, as the student leader Enjolras, is joined by his clarion-voiced fellow students in the rousing pre-revolutionary cafe scenes. But “Drink With Me to Days Gone By,” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” — the post-battle songs that usually trigger tears — lack a crucial ache here.

As the Thenardiers, the corrupt and vulgar innkeepers who will do anything for money, J. Anthony Crane and Allison Guinn deliver plenty of energy but go way overboard even by the standard of this always exaggerated pair. Phoenix Best displays a Whitney Houston-like voice as their streetwise daughter, Eponine, whose unrequited passion for Marius ends in a love-death scene. Melissa Mitchell, who plays Cosette’s much-abused mother, Fantine — to whom Valjean makes a crucial promise — leaves something less than a vivid impression. Jordan Cole (who alternates with Julian Emile Lerner) was a feisty, confident Gavroche, the street urchin with great courage. Zoe Glick and Sophie Knapp will be alternating in the roles of Little Cosette and Young Eponine.

The absolute glory of Schonberg’s score is a given as it captures both the pervasive inhumanity of man, as well as the rare instances of goodness and selflessness. And reservations about this production aside, it is impossible not to admire the sheer vocal, physical and emotional stamina required to perform the show eight times a week. “Les Miserables” is, without question, a grueling test.

Joshua Grosso (from left) as Marius, with Phoenix Best as Eponine and Jillian Butler as Cosette in “Les Miserables,” at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. (Photo: Matthew Murphy)