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Paramount production spins “Les Miserables” on an epic scale

Just call it “the ongoing miracle on Galena Boulevard.” Once again, Aurora’s Paramount Theatre has pulled out all the stops for one of its Broadway Series shows— this time with a production of “Les Miserables” so lavish in its vocal and orchestral power, in the sweep of its storytelling and in its grand-scale design that it could easily hold its own in any major opera house.

The production’s staggeringly grand and complex set, the work of Kevin Depinet and Jeffrey D. Kmiec (wonderfully lit by Jesse Klug), sets the tone. With a turntable sage, a sweeping  staircase that at moments rotates into a massive city wall, and a giant “halo” suspended from the rafters that serves as a revolving catwalk, it suggests the nine circles of Hell as described by Dante. And indeed, for all its elements of redemption, prayer and the power of love, this musical by Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer,  based on the novel by Victor Hugo, is very much about all that is hellish on Earth, from poverty and imprisonment, to greed, injustice, child abuse and war.

‘LES MISERABLES’

Highly recommended

When: Through April 26

Where: Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora

Tickets: $41 – $54

Info: (630) 896-6666;

http://www.ParamountAurora.com

Run time: 2 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

The hellish metaphor is apparent from the start.  Ordinarily, the show begins as Jean Valjean (Robert Wilde), branded for life as Prisoner #24601, is seen as part of a chain gang doing slave labor in a rock quarry — a punishment meted out for his stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s starving child. But here we see the prisoners yoked to each other by heavy ropes, and circling around that “halo” under the whip of their feverish law-and-order nemesis, Inspector Javert (Rod Thomas, in superb form, whose dual renderings of  “Stars” are showstoppers, and whose suicide scene is fearsome). This opening scene is one of true cruelty and terror.

Of course the rest of the show follows Valjean as he is finally released from prison after 19 years, is initially rejected by society, receives a unique second chance from a merciful priest, and goes on to become a successful man who saves the lives of others in a variety of ways. It is an epic journey, and under the direction of Jim Corti, who has a special gift for balancing the grand scale with the intimate, the many lines in the show’s complex story exert a powerful emotional pull.

The passage of time in this show has always been an issue (it moves from 1815 into the 1830s, with much going on in between), and while Wilde brings a naturalistic edge to his portrayal (he is particularly convincing as a prematurely grizzled prisoner), he doesn’t quite age fully enough to suggest the eminence grise Valjean has become by the end. In addition, the emblematic scene following the June Rebellion of 1932 in which he climbs down into the sewers of Paris to save his daughter’s beloved, Marius (Devin DeSantis, in fine romantic form),  is not as clear as it might be on this set. But these are minor quibbles given the grandeur  of the overall production.

Musically the production is a beauty, too, thanks to music director Tom Vendafreddo, who conducts a 14-piece orchestra using the show’s original orchestrations. Vendafreddo also is a master of balance, making sure that the score’s lush, operatic sound never eclipses the actors’ crystal clear delivery of the lyrics, which serve as the all-essential dialogue in this sung-through musical. And the voices — whether solo, in duets and trios, or in grand chorales — are stunning. Most notably there is the imposing Travis Taylor as Enjolras, the firebrand leader of the revolution. Most recently seen as Lancelot in Drury Lane’s “Camelot,” Taylor has the sort of imposing good looks and soaring vocal prowess that should already have landed him a role on Broadway.

Travis Taylor plays Enjolras in the Paramount Theatre production of "Les Miserables." (Photo: ....)

Travis Taylor plays Enjolras in the Paramount Theatre production of “Les Miserables.” (Photo: Charles Osgood)

There is a truthfulness in all the portrayals here. Hannah Corneau is a realistic Fantine, the working woman abandoned by her lover, who sacrifices all to support her little daughter, Cosette (deftly played in childhood by Nicole Scimeca). Marya Grandy and George Keating put a truly nasty yet comically antagonistic edge on the Thenardiers, the money-grubbing innkeepers and thieves who exploit Cosette and all others. Lillie Cummings is their independent-minded daughter, Eponine, who will do anything for Marius, though she knows he is in love with the adult Cosette (Erica Stephan, whose soaring voice blends beautifully with De Santis’ and Cummings’ in “A Heart Full of Love”). Ricky Falbo (so impressive in the Paramount’s previous show, ‘Tommy”), is most winning as Gavroche, the heroic street urchin.

The Thenardiers (left), played by George Keating and Marya Grandy, with Devin DeSantis as Marius, in the Paramount Theatre production of "Les Miserables." (Photo: Charles Osgood)

The Thenardiers (left), played by George Keating and Marya Grandy, with Devin DeSantis as Marius, in the Paramount Theatre production of “Les Miserables.” (Photo: Charles Osgood)

Corti’s staging of the finale is original and powerful as it brilliantly transforms the set’s nine circles of hell into heavenly orbs. To be sure, old Victor Hugo would have applauded the image. The Paramount audience was on its feet.