Chicago Theatre Review
Look Down, Look Down
It’s said that Alain Boublil became inspired to transfer Victor Hugo’s sweeping saga of injustice, forgiveness and survival to the musical stage while watching a production of “Oliver.” The character of the Artful Dodger brought him to mind of little Gavroche at the barricade and from there this much-loved classic became a concept album followed by a 1985 opening in the West End and a Broadway phenomenon two years later. The rest is history with the multi Tony Award-winning epic musical going on to other productions worldwide, including national tours, educational theatre adaptations, film, concert versions and recordings. And, as evidenced by various casting notices, this is only the beginning.
It’s a most appropriate show for celebrating Drury Lane’s 30th anniversary of producing excellent, Broadway caliber musicals and plays in Chicagoland. Employing Rachel Rockwell to direct this production, one of the area’s most creatively talented and respected directors, is perfection. This shrewd, skilled artist has a particular way with sprawling, musical sagas such as this one. Ms. Rockwell’s cast of 33 brilliant actor/singers represents the cream of Chicago’s performers. Working with the theatre’s unsurpassed musical director, Roberta Duchak (who also worked as musical director on the recent film version of this show) and Ben Johnson’s full-sounding orchestra, this production positively sings.
Even if audiences have seen this musical before, and lord knows there’s been plenty of opportunities between various road tours and the Marriott’s first-rate production a few years earlier, this is a superior, professional interpretation that should not be missed. One reason is the casting of two New York credited actors in the leading roles. Ivan Rutherford, who has played the role on Broadway and on tour over 2,000 times, is a magnificent Jean Valjean. Gifted with a gorgeous voice laced with lovely high, tenor notes, this ruggedly handsome actor possesses a maturity that lends itself perfectly to a character who’s been beaten down by society. He begins the play having spent 19 years unjustly imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread, in order to feed his sister’s starving child. He then ages over the course of 17 years, continually just steps ahead of Javert, his unrelenting pursuer. Played with grandeur, dignity and unbelievable vocal prowess by Quentin Earl Darrington (so magnificent as Coalhouse only a few season’s ago in Drury Lane’s “Ragtime”), Javert is the quintessential antagonist. Together, these two actors are reasons enough for revisiting Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s most famous, best-loved work.
But Ms. Rockwell has filled her large cast with many other formidable talents from the area. Comic actor/singers Mark David Kaplan and Sharon Sachs provide some much-welcome humor as the low-life Thernardiers, the coarse couple we first meet running an inn where they pick the pockets of their guests (a fast-paced “Master of the House”). The abusive couple is also raising a foster child strictly, of course, for the additional income it provides. Little Cosette (a role shared by Sage Harper and Ava Morse), has been placed in their care by her mother, Fantine (played with verve, but some trepidation, by lovely Jennie Sophia). Jean Valjean promises Fantine on her deathbed that her child will never want for anything and he raises the girl to become a lovely young adult. Beautiful Emily Rohm has the grace and gentleness needed for this role. Beyond that, Ms. Rohm has one of the finest, most crystalline sopranos in Chicago, as she lends her talent to songs like “In My Life” and “A Heart Filled With Love.” She shares the stage with the talented Skylar Adams as Marius, the handsome young scholar who falls in love with her just as Paris is about to erupt in a student-led revolution. His voice caresses several songs but none as poignant as his gorgeous “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” If the slaughter at the barricade doesn’t bring a tear to the audience’s eye, this number will.
So superb in Paramount’s “In the Heights,” Christina Nieves provides another star-making turn as Eponine, the doomed young woman who also loves Marius, but for naught. Her heartbreaking rendition of “On My Own” will be forever remembered by audiences who see this production. David Girolmo, as the Bishop, wisely plays his early scene with Valjean with a loving kindness that sets the tone of forgiveness and redemption for this entire production. Travis Taylor, unrecognizable from his role as The Monster in Drury Lane’s recent “Young Frankenstein,” finally can be seen without being buried under special effects as the handsome young Enjolras. As the leader of the student uprising, Mr. Taylor’s rich baritone rousingly leads the ensemble mounting the barricade in “The People’s Song” and “One Day More.” And the sheer enthusiasm and precise diction to be found in young Matthew Uzarraga’s scene-stealing Gavroche has to be seen to be appreciated. With an impressive resume of Chicago and national commercial credits, Matthew (alternating in the role with Charlie Babbo, another area dynamo with Chicago and Broadway credits), was the star of opening night’s performance, bringing a smile to every audience member’s face and, ultimately, a tear to their eye. The ensemble, populated with the very finest area voices, includes such talented performers as Missy Aguilar, George Keating, Nathan Gardner, Ann McMann, James Nedrud, David Sajewich, Will Skrip and Joe Tokarz, to name a few.
This epic musical, that’s on its way to becoming a theatrical staple worldwide, will seldom be seen produced with such fine attention to detail. From Rachel Rockwell’s creative genius to a dream cast of local talent, this magnificent production should not be missed. Highlighted by Scott Davis’ astounding scenic design paired with Sage Marie Carter’s unbelievable projections and Greg Hofmann’s brilliant lighting, and cloaked in Erika Senase and Maggie Hofmann’s multitudes of period costumes, this astounding, near perfect production sets the bar high for other theatres. “At the End of the Day,” this is the quintessential production of “Les Miz.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 6-June 8 at the Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 630-530-0111 or by going to www.drurylane.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.