Paramount's stellar 'Les Miserables' offers big bang for the buck

  • Intractable Inspector Javert (Rod Thomas), right, warns newly released convict Jean Valjean (Robert Wilde) against breaking his parole in Paramount Theatre's "Les Miserables," running through April 26.

    Intractable Inspector Javert (Rod Thomas), right, warns newly released convict Jean Valjean (Robert Wilde) against breaking his parole in Paramount Theatre's "Les Miserables," running through April 26. Courtesy of Charles Osgood

  • Robert Wilde, a Naperville native, stars as Jean Valjean, the redeemed ex-convict at the center of Paramount Theatre's revival of the musical "Les Miserables."

    Robert Wilde, a Naperville native, stars as Jean Valjean, the redeemed ex-convict at the center of Paramount Theatre's revival of the musical "Les Miserables." Courtesy of Charles Osgood

  • Paramount Theatre in Aurora earns kudos for its gloriously re-imagined revival of "Les Miserables" the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer based on Victor Hugo's novel.

    Paramount Theatre in Aurora earns kudos for its gloriously re-imagined revival of "Les Miserables" the musical by Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer based on Victor Hugo's novel. Courtesy of Charles Osgood

  • Student rebels man the barricades during the 1832 Paris uprising in Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer's musical "Les Miserables," running through April 26 at Paramount Theatre in Aurora.

    Student rebels man the barricades during the 1832 Paris uprising in Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer's musical "Les Miserables," running through April 26 at Paramount Theatre in Aurora. Courtesy of Charles Osgood

  • Marya Grandy and George Keating play the villainous Madame and Monsieur Thenardier in Paramount Theatre's "Les Miserables."

    Marya Grandy and George Keating play the villainous Madame and Monsieur Thenardier in Paramount Theatre's "Les Miserables." Courtesy of Charles Osgood

 
 
Updated 3/25/2015 11:14 AM

Paramount Theatre's grand and glorious "Les Miserables" offers about as much theatrical bang for the buck as a discerning theatergoer could want.

Director Jim Corti's ingeniously re-imagined revival of this sweeping, sung-through musical -- inspired by Victor Hugo's 19th-century novel -- rivals just about any theatrical spectacle produced in Chicago in recent memory, Broadway tours included.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The visually stunning set (which earned applause opening night) reflects Kevin Depinet's and Jeffrey D. Kmiec's inspired reinterpretation of the rotating turntable, a design element long associated with the show and a metaphor for the passing of time and the turning of fortune's wheel. Here, the wheel is represented by a circular bridge, suspended high above the massive spiral staircase that dominates the revolving stage and which, in the second act, transforms into a towering barricade.

The show's striking visuals also owe much to lighting designer Jesse Klug, who masterfully incorporates shadows and silhouettes. He also uses the spotlight to brilliant effect, bathing Fantine in a waxen glow that makes explicit her living death. Later, in "Beggars at the Feast," Klug underscores the Thenardiers' depravity in Grand Guignol style by lighting them from below.

Paramount's production also impresses musically, with music director/conductor Tom Vendafreddo's stellar 14-piece orchestra (playing the original Broadway orchestrations) complementing perfectly the cast's rich, robust vocals. The combination is incredibly satisfying, in part because we're not often treated to a pit orchestra this size that includes actual violins, oboes and horns. It makes a difference.

That said, the score by composer/librettist Claude-Michel Schonberg, librettist Alain Boublil and lyricist Herbert Kretzmer is lush, at times excessively so. Yet, the anthemic call to arms "Do You Hear the People Sing?" and "One Day More" still raise goose bumps on my arms.

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To that end, this production makes clear not just Corti's flair for epic statements, which for all their grandeur feel organic, but his skill in crafting intimate moments and making them feel authentic. No easy task when you consider this sprawling examination of punishment and redemption, brutality and compassion, good and evil, social justice, obsession and the enduring power of love, is at heart, a melodrama.

It centers on Jean Valjean, played by Naperville native Robert Wilde, who is paroled in 1815 after serving 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Encouraged by a kindly priest, the embittered Valjean transforms himself into a gentleman, but in the process violates his parole, which enrages the merciless police inspector Javert (Rod Thomas) who devotes himself to recapturing the ex-convict and is ultimately undone by Valjean's kindness.

Unaware of Javert's pursuit, Valjean meets and takes pity on the doomed Fantine (Hannah Corneau exercising incredible control over her exquisite voice), forced into prostitution to support her young daughter Cosette (played as a child by Nicole Scimeca). Valjean promises he will care for Cosette and upon Fantine's death retrieves the child from her caretakers Monsieur Thenardier (the deliciously feral George Keating) and his wife, played by Marya Grandy (more and more a force to be reckoned with), whose blazing eyes suggest Madame isn't as cowed by her husband as her stooped shoulders suggest. More menacing than comedic, Keating and Grandy are ideal as corrupt innkeepers and occasional thieves.

Lillie Cummings -- whose candid, quietly resolute "On My Own" is among the show's loveliest moments -- plays their street savvy daughter Eponine. Eponine loves the student Marius (nice work by Devin DeSantis, whose anguished "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" is a moving testament to grief and guilt). Marius, however, has eyes only for Valjean's adopted daughter Cosette, played by the honey-voiced Erica Stephan.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Their love triangle unfolds against the Paris Uprising of 1832, an anti-monarchy insurrection led by Enjolras (Travis Taylor, who played the same role in Drury Lane Theatre's 2014 revival, and whose outsize passion matches his magnificent voice).

Also deserving mention is Ricky Falbo's plucky street urchin, Gavroche.

But at the end of the day, it's Wilde's Valjean and Thomas' Javert who carry this show on their very capable shoulders. Both have fine voices. Both underscore their characters with a kind of mania or madness.

A little young for the role, Wilde nevertheless conveys a real sense of Valjean's persistent, internal dilemma: Does he sacrifice another to save himself or condemn himself in order to save an innocent?

But it's Thomas -- frequently the charming lead or his amiable best friend -- who is a revelation, stopping the show with a majestic, emotionally raw performance of "Stars." Unforgiving and unrelenting, his Javert is no cartoon villain, but a victim of his own intransigence. And for that, we mourn him.

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