Diction suffers in Chicago return of reconfigured 'Les Miserables'
"Les Misérables" -- ★ ★ ½
Some longtime fans of the musical "Les Misérables" are upset.
Directors Trevor Nunn and John Caird's 1985 London production, with its famed revolving stage, finally closes this month for theater renovations. The musical is set to reopen later this year, but as the reconfigured 2009 touring version -- minus the revolving set.
Across the pond, this same touring "Les Misérables" has returned to Chicago for a limited run. And it reinforces the fan gripes.
Directors Laurence Connor and James Powell's touring version is excessively dark and murky. Paule Constable provides a complex lighting design, and Matt Kinley's grim sets and projection designs draw inspiration from paintings by novelist Victor Hugo. But the unifying symbolic elegance of John Napier's original revolving set is sorely missed.
The production also relies too heavily on theatrical haze, creating an uncomfortably blurry and musty-smelling experience.
Design issues aside, the jam-packed storytelling of songwriters Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's rousing score mostly shines through. You can't help but root once again for Jean Valjean, the good-hearted convict-on-the-run trying to evade the relentless Javert through decades of French history.
And this touring company has the vocal range to deliver the score's many solo showpieces.
Nick Cartell vocally soars as Valjean in the pleading prayer "Bring Him Home," while Josh Davis as Javert delivers powerful takes on "Stars" and his Act II "Soliloquy" (which is followed by one of the few stage effects that bests the original).
Paige Smallwood also impresses as Eponine, who provides a clear and strong pop belt to the unrequited love song "On My Own."
But when it comes to sung dialogue in-between the showpieces, there is a lot of sloppy diction. Garbled lyrics make it hard to decipher what is happening amid Mick Potter's blaring sound design.
In addition, some cast members don't plumb the full emotional depths of their struggling characters.
Of course all things must come to an end -- even long-running stage shows with iconic scenery. But as this "Les Misérables" tour shows, the replacement often can't erase beloved first-time memories of an original.
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Location: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also July 14), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (also Wednesday, July 17 and 24, and Thursday, July 25); through July 27
Running time: About 2 hours 55 minutes, including intermission
Parking: Area pay garages and limited metered street parking
Rating: Features some profanity, with scenes of violence and prostitution