Les Misérables storms the barricades again. | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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Les Misérables storms the barricades again.

Thirty-four years later, the blockbuster musical still packs a potent political message with the melodrama.

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Given its blockbuster history, it may be hard to remember that, despite packed houses, Les Misérables got terrible reviews on its 1985 London opening (though American critics adored it on Broadway in 1987). Song for memorable song, Claude-Michel Schönberg's music and Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel's lyrics (translated into English by Herbert Kretzmer) still inspire more than 30 years later, in part due to evergreen themes of love, duty, and redemption. (All that fuss over a loaf of bread!)

As Jean Valjean, Nick Cartell brings a showstopping tenor to "Who Am I?" and "Bring Him Home" opposite antagonist Josh Davis's Inspector Javert, whose powerful intensity reflects a passion for justice that's warped into vengeance. Both men seek salvation, yet only one achieves it. As the Thénardiers, the conniving husband-and-wife innkeepers, Jimmy Smagula and Allison Guinn unexpectedly steal the show. Paige Smallwood (Éponine) slays with "On My Own." The entire ensemble, including the children (gotta love theater kids), gets the audience pumped for revolution.

Laurence Connor's staging for this touring production is dazzlingly dynamic, with Matt Kinley's set and image design moving the action from the Paris slums to the makeshift barricade, complemented by Paul Constable's intense lighting design that highlights the tension with moving spots and well-timed flashes. Les Miz is certainly melodramatic, yet the story touches on many all-too-human issues: finding one's purpose, the fear of losing a child, and the struggles of untrained marginalized people to fight for a better place in the world. Many of the characters make a conscious decision to risk everything for a noble cause, a timely lesson for those eager for change.   v

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