There aren’t many shows that radically improve as a property and theatrical experience over the decades, but “Les Misérables” has achieved that. It began as a 1980 French-language concept album that became an Intimate French-language pop cabaret show. In the wake of his success with “Cats,” producer Cameron Mackintosh commissioned English-language lyrics and expanded the forces for London’s West End. That 1985 version was transferred to Broadway in 1987 and also played a mammoth Chicago run at the Auditorium Theatre.
It is worth noting that while audiences lined up to see it, critical reception was divided. The fundamental flaw was that characters came and went so quickly—in those days, literally with a circular turn of its massive gray set—and character development was so superficial that the audience barely got a chance to know them, let alone care about what happens to them.
To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of “Les Misérables,” Mackintosh completely rethought the show in 2010. A visual design incorporating Victor Hugo’s own colorful artwork replaced the epic blackbox approach. Via sophisticated computer graphics, these scenes could quickly morph from one scene to another, much to the aid of a complex dramaturgy and often to eye-popping effect.
The 1980s Europop soundscape of the score was re-orchestrated with an actual orchestra in French grand opera style. The show voices that used to struggle with the demands of the score were traded for trained voices that could soar with the music yet had such flawless diction that every word could be heard.
All of these qualities remain in the epic national touring production at the Cadillac Palace Theatre with refreshing new additions: this is now a diverse cast to tremendous effect, and by and large, a refreshingly young cast. Everyone can sing their heart out—even the kids—but each and every member of the cast and entire ensemble, are always singing, dancing and acting as individual characters. You are completely transported.
Veterans Nick Cartell as Jean Valjean and Preston Truman Boyd as Javert are the most remarkable pair I have seen in these roles, and I have probably covered two dozen productions over the decades. Vocally superb, never overdoing it, and a chemistry that is extraordinary. You feel every emotion of their journey together. Cartell makes Valjean human rather than reverential; we see him working through his extraordinary challenges and how to deal with them. Boyd’s Javert is no sadist, his despicable actions are a numbed empathy: an immense lesson for our time, for any time. There is a struggling soul here underneath substituting legal literalism for a conscience.
Haley Dortch as Fantine nearly steals the show with her “I Dreamed a Dream” that is truly heartbreaking. She literally did stop the show. Little Cosette (Cora Jane Messer/ Hazel Vogel) is tender, not a misplaced Broadway baby.
The grief anthem “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” rendered by Marius (Gregory Lee Rodriguez) is so poignant, and so relevant to a world emerging from a pandemic.
Randy Jeter sings and acts the role of the Bishop of Digne with such grace and humanity, setting Valjean on a redemptive path so compellingly.
Any opera company in the world would be jealous of the diction, ensemble, intonation, balance and tone of the singing of the chorus—every word was clear and beautifully sung.
Music director and conductor Brian Eads always allows the music to breathe and be flexible, a rarity in a show these days. It makes all the difference when a show is through-composed with little spoken dialogue.
This is not only the best production of “Les Misérables” I’ve experienced over the decades, but one of the best productions this veteran critic has experienced of anything in a long, long time.
“Les Misérables” at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph, broadwayinchicago.com. Through March 5.