It would be churlish for audiences to expect a rotating turntable stage in every new production of "Les Misérables," now making its Drury Lane Theatre debut in Oakbrook Terrace. That iconic staging device -- so closely linked to the international blockbuster musical -- can probably only be seen nowadays in the original London production, which is almost three decades old.
Yet Jeff Award-winner Rachel Rockwell is among the latest directors showing that all that relentless revolving isn't necessary in reinterpreting "Les Misérables." Rockwell gets to the dramatic heart of this sung-through pop opera inspired by Victor Hugo's sprawling 19th century novel.
"Les Misérables"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace, (630) 530-0111, drurylane.com
Showtimes: 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, 1:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 5 and 8:45 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday; runs through June 8
Running time: About two hours and 50 minutes with intermission
Parking: Valet service and free adjacent lot
Rating: Mild profanity and some sexual situations, but largely for general audiences
Sure, there may be a few more blackouts than before to help move scenery on and off, making the proceedings slightly less cinematic than in directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird's original seamless staging. But these pauses don't really detract from Rockwell's otherwise solid "Les Misérables," which skillfully blends projected background illustrations designed by Sage Marie Carter with the rough-hewed sets by designer Scott Davis.
The story, by now, is a familiar one. It follows French ex-convict Jean Valjean's journey as he relies on his faith and strength to help him hold on to both his freedom and his conscience.
One of the major plusses at Drury Lane is that its production is stocked with performers who do vocal justice to the beloved if declamatory score penned by French songwriters Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg and English lyricist Herbert Kretzmer. In many cases, the Drury Lane cast offers up vocal balms to any bad memories of Hollywood stars who didn't do justice to the score in the 2012 film version.
With more than 2,000 previous performances as Valjean on Broadway, on tour and regionally, Ivan Rutherford is a true veteran of this challenging role. He navigates not only the highflying vocal demands (particularly in the prayer "Bring Him Home"), but all the physical ones as well (notice how Rutherford hoists prone performers over his shoulder). Yet Rutherford could perhaps dig deeper emotionally into the role and inject more spontaneity, particularly when Valjean faces repeated questions of conscience.
This quibble could also be leveled at Quentin Earl Darrington as the police inspector Javert, who relentlessly pursues Valjean. Otherwise, Darrington is another vocal powerhouse who constantly impresses with his crystal-clear enunciation and his ramrod-stiff gravitas.
Yet another vocal standout is Travis Taylor, who brings a virile operatic majesty to the student revolutionary Enjolras in rousing numbers like "Do You Hear the People Sing" and "Red and Black."
For those who love the romantic triangle of "Les Misérables," Rockwell has cast the very capable Skyler Adams as the idealistic student Marius, who is loved by both Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette (an appropriately prim Emily Rohm) and the street urchin, Eponine (Christina Nieves, who gets to the heart of her unrequited love ballad "On My Own" quite well).
And for comic relief as the scheming Thenardiers, Mark David Kaplan and Sharon Sachs find great ways to wheedle out laughs here and there to help leaven all the grimness. Also brightening the production are the rotating child performers who offer multiple moments for audiences to go "awww" (Sage Harper and Ava Morse share the role of Young Cosette, while Matthew Uzarraga and Charlie Babbo alternate as Gavroche).
The only principal performer who vocally disappointed was Jennie Sophia as the fallen woman Fantine. On opening night, Sophia was a tad pitchy on the extended notes of "I Dreamed a Dream."
Die-hard "Les Mis" fans might note that Drury Lane opted to make judicious music cuts, but they help keep the show under the original's long-gone running time of three-hours and 15 minutes. And as Rockwell and her Drury Lane cast compellingly show, "Les Misérables" does just fine sans spinning.