By Barry Reszel
A revolutionary staging of arguably the greatest musical ever written awaits patrons who trek to Aurora’s Paramount Theatre for its fabulous production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg‘s Les Misérables.
Opening night’s audience audibly gasped at its first look at the masterful, stark, three-story, spiral-staired set, literally “turning, turning, turning” through the scenes. Two reviewers at intermission already awarded the duo of Kevin Depinet and Jeffrey D. Kmiec this year’s set design Jeff.
The curtain’s rise is multi-sensory as Musical Director Tom Vendafreddo and assistant Kory Danielson lead the most exquisite 14-member orchestra possibly assembled through the show’s original, full orchestrations. Their work is big, precise and brilliant, adding depth, flavor and the right amount of whimsy.
This musical at its 30-year mark still evokes every possible emotion from its characters and their audience. For those who have somehow missed the Les Mis train until now (shame for missing last year’s every-bit-as-wonderful production at Drury Lane; see the review here), Director Jim Corti gives every reason to hop on board.
The well-known story centers on 19th Century French fugitive Jean Valjean, who broke parole to have a chance at a better life, and his pursuer, the self-righteous Inspector Javert, who seeks to enforce the letter of the law. It’s based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel set to the book by Boublil and Schönberg, with music by Schönberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. A full plot synopsis and history of the 1987 Tony Award-winning Best Musical may be read here.
What may be the most lasting impression of this production is its perfect fit for this stage. Built in 1931 and now with 1,888 seats, the Paramount’s seating capacity would be third largest on the Great White Way (see Broadway theatres’ information here) and is every bit majestic as Chicago’s Cadillac Palace and Oriental Theatre.
So too, there is nothing demure about Les Misérables. It’s a humungous, gritty roller coaster ride with an accompanying soundtrack of well-known, triumphant marches and heart-wrenching ballads (“At the End of the Day,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” “Who Am I?” “One Day More,” “On My Own,” and “Bring Him Home,” among others). Corti’s touch with this gargantuan seems to show off Paramount Theatre’s glorious splendor beyond that of any of its predecessors.
Enormity is heavy. Thankfully, Corti employs an ensemble of powerful lifters.
First stage plaudits go to Jeff winner Rod Thomas, Chicago’s consummate leading man who brings his handsome good looks and powerful vibrato to villain Javert. His “Stars” soliloquy, sung from the heavens of this enormous set, is a particular highlight. Travis Taylor reprises his lead rebel Enjolras role from Drury Lane and commands this stage with tenderness and power, leading one patron to audibly wonder if he might one day be cast as this show’s lead, Valjean.
Lovely and talented young stars Hannah Corneau (Fantine), Lillie Cummings (Éponine) and Erica Stephan (Cosette) indeed fill the darkness with order and light. Each time any of these ladies sings is a treat. George Keating and Marya Grandy are deliciously smarmy as M. and Mme. Thénardier, trending to evil rather than the more typically comedic. While this is right and good for the portrayal of child abusers and thieves, it’s another example of this production choosing the weightier option when given the choice.
Devin DeSantis, splendid in leading roles throughout Chicagoland over the past year-plus, delivers again as young rebel lover Marius. His “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” is touchingly angst-filled. And when an ensemble includes stars in their own right (Elizabeth Lanza, who racked up a Jeff nomination as Nellie Forbush in Marriott’s 2013 South Pacific, immediately comes to mind), the vocal strength and blend is simply superb.
As Jean Valjean, New York actor Robert Wilde is youthfully rugged, which is particularly effective in the early scenes, and his characterization throughout is terrific. The consummate professional fought through obvious throat distress on opening night to deliver a competently controlled vocal performance. Lucky are the patrons who will see him in the performances following, when some adequate rest and throat coat will bring out his best.
Backstage, the lighting design of Jesse Klug deserves its own standing ovation. This hardest working guy in Chicagoland musical theatre delivers intricate, nuanced, fascinating illuminations that make every production he works on better. The same can be said for Costume Designer Theresa Ham, who might just be able to finish Corti’s sentences, so true are her costumes to the director’s grand vision.
Together, this team, along with numerous others not mentioned here, delivers a delight to every sense. Paramount’s Les Misérables is a literally towering, artistically mammoth treatment of the musical that deserves nothing less.
“Les Misérables” performs through April 26 at the Paramount Theatre, 23 East Galena Blvd., Aurora. Evening shows are performed Wed. through Sun. Matinees are performed Wed., Sat. and Sun. Tickets ($41 to $54) and information are available at www.ParamountAurora.com, by calling (630) 896-6666 or visiting the Paramount box office Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and 2 hours prior to evening performances.