Chicago Theatre Review
Revenge, Repentance and Forgiveness
Les Miserables – Paramount Arts Center
Ringing down the curtain on their fourth successful season of musicals, Paramount tops itself once more with this spectacular production. Alan Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s sweeping musical version of Victor Hugo’s 1862 epic novel, while probably familiar to most theatergoers, has never looked or sounded grander. Certainly Chicagoans have had many opportunities to view this classic story of obsessive revenge and forgiveness, whether live on stage or in its 2012 film version; but Paramount’s production is the real deal. It’s absolute Broadway caliber and should not be missed.
The success of this production begins with the skill Jim Corti brings to casting his production. He’s found 33 of the area’s most talented actor/singers to create the panorama of characters demanded by this sweeping musical. Yet, while still managing to keep his production in constant motion, always building scene upon stirring scene, Mr. Corti knows when it’s time to pull back a bit and give focus to the individual character. This director fully understands that while spectacle impresses, it’s in those quiet, honest moments when the heart beats true. Paired with the work by Tom Vendafreddo, one of the area’s youngest and most talented musical directors, this staging sounds fantastic. The most accomplished, best-trained Chicago voices sing this glorious score, accompanied by a full pit orchestra playing the original Broadway arrangements.
Thanks to the technical artistry and genius of set designers Kevin Depinet and Jeffrey D. Kmiec, the stark and dramatic lighting design by Jesse Klug and Theresa Ham’s extensive and sumptuous period costumes, along with elegant wigs and makeup by Lauren Cecil and Katie Cordts, this production looks as great as it sounds. A giant revolving staircase, a bridge that raises heavenwards, a turntable that allows for multitudes of scenic possibilities, hundreds of candles descending from above, fog, gunfire, flags and waving banners all combine to create the stunning visual elegance this production requires.
As the curtain rises, a chain gang of prisoners, tethered together by a giant cable, painfully work their way up a mountain of steps. With this stark opening scene, Mr. Corti establishes the somber mood and overwhelming grandeur that will dominate his production. An unkempt, branded Jean Valjean, unjustly incarcerated for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, is about to be paroled. Unsuccessfully he attempts to clear his name with Javert, his jailor and obsessive keeper of justice. From this moment, the audience follows Valjean’s journey over the years toward repentance and redemption. Time passes and we meet Fantine, a poor, downtrodden, single mother struggling to provide for her innocent young daughter, Cosette. We become acquainted with the despicable, unscrupulous Thenardiers, selfish innkeepers who’ve harbored little Cosette, for a price. The years pass and tension continues to mount in Paris, as Enjolras leads his fellow students toward revolution against the unjust governing elite. Cosette grows up under Valjean’s loving care, falling in love with student rebel Marius, for whom Eponine, the Thenardier’s equally rebellious daughter, has also developed a fondness.
Every single performer on the Paramount stage contributes to this rousing, emotionally vibrant production. New York/Chicago actor Robert Wilde stars as Jean Valjean in a performance that’s both strong and sensitive. While he’s most convincing as the younger, newly-released prisoner, trying to lead a repentant life as a Mayor and compassionate factory-owner, Mr. Wilde still meets the challenge as the older Valjean. However, while he sings the blazes out of Act I, especially the emotional “Who Am I,” the actor’s voice begins to show strain in the second act, particularly during the very vocally demanding, “Bring Him Home.” With proper rest and care, Mr. Wilde should be ready to resume his role with strength and gusto during the remainder of the run.
Rod Thomas, who has impressed in such productions as “Mary Poppins,” “White Christmas” and Drury Lane’s “Next to Normal,” is astounding as Javert. With his rich, mellow baritone, Mr. Thomas sings this difficult role with so much power and passion, resisting the urge to play Javert as simply the villain, but rather as a real man firmly anchored by his beliefs. Mr. Thomas is extraordinary in this role and his rendition of “Stars” is one of this production’s highlights. Lovely Hannah Corneau brings a stubborn determination to her portrayal of Fantine, and her beautifully sung “I Dreamed a Dream” is less the plaintive cry of a helpless victim than a resolute visualization of a woman who’s suffered beyond belief, but is still fighting the battle.
The always superb George Keating and the marvelous character actress Marya Grandy make Thenardier and his long-suffering, equally greedy wife, Madame Thenardier, a strong pair of survivors, prowling their way along the underbelly of Paris. “Master of the House,” especially as the tempo shifts and Ms. Grandy drags a chair downstage to sit and dish, is another highlight of this show. Devin DeSantis, who continually impresses in everything he does, is stellar as Marius. His handsome countenance, his struggle between love and duty, his incredibly well-sung ballads, like his heartfelt “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” and the lovely “A Heart Full of Love” (shared with the beautiful Erica Stephan, as Cosette) equally impress. Young Lillie Cummings is a heartbreaking Eponine, painting a picture of loneliness and yearning in her beautifully sung, “On My Own.” Travis Taylor, certainly one of Chicago’s most brilliant young musical stars, with a Broadway sound and great leading man charisma, awes with his portrayal of Enjolras. His magnificently textured, full, resonant baritone, is prominently featured in numbers like “Red and Black, “Do You Hear the People Sing” and the patriotic Act I finale, “One Day More.”
The entire cast, each member playing multiple roles, deserves a star on the Walk of Fame. Every ensemble member, such as Sophie Grimm, Elizabeth Lanza, Ben Barker, Nathan Gardner and Steven Russell, and every other performer, pours everything to this production with strength and focus. Young Nicole Scimeca is perfection as Little Cosette, holding her own alone on an empty stage with her heartfelt “Castle in the Clouds.” Ricky Falbo, fresh from his triumph as young “Tommy,” is excellent as Gavroche. Not only is he feisty and endearing, his final scene reduces the audience to tears.
This is the production Chicago will be talking about for years to come. It’s the quintessential version of this classic musical that gives credence to Paramount’s claim that it’s producing Broadway caliber musicals for Chicagoland. Staged by outstanding directors, cast with exciting, talented performers, supported by Chicago’s finest artists, technicians and musicians and enjoyed by thousands of smart theatre fans, this claim can’t be denied. Victor Hugo’s story of revenge, repentance and forgiveness is honestly told, beautifully sung and exceptionally staged, making this production the must-see show for this Spring.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented March 18-April 26 by Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd, Aurora, IL.
Tickets are available by visiting the box office in person, calling them at 630-896-6666 or by going to www.ParamountAurora.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.