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Theater Commentary:

"LES MISERABLES" at The Auditorium Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

As a long-time devotee of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s omni-award-winning epic musical, "Les Miserables," I feel compelled to comment on the lackluster state of its recent touring production, running through Feb. 2 at the Auditorium Theatre. I’ve seen so many productions I’ve lost count. But I could never forget how, during the show’s blockbuster heyday in the 1980s and early 1990s, this boldly sung-through account of Victor Hugo’s novel engulfed my entire being. I rarely left the theater without feeling emotionally spent yet so heart-poundingly alive.

But, a few years ago when "Les Miz" stopped at the Auditorium Theatre for a limited engagement, I detected a drop in production values and in the overall vitality of the show. At first I thought my disappointment might have had something to do with myself – either I changed or had simply seen too many versions and no longer felt the immediacy of these iconic characters. But the more I explored this – and after repeatedly listening to the musical’s superb symphonic recording – I realized that "Les Miz" remained one of the most moving and groundbreaking musicals of all time. I had not changed as much as the energy of the show, which has been touring for over a decade.

When I left the Auditorium Theatre disappointed and devoid of feeling on opening night of "Les Miz’s" most recent Chicago engagement, I couldn’t help but empathize with anyone seeing this show for the first time and not experiencing a transformative rush of inner fortitude. John Caird and Trevor Nunn’s burningly urgent original direction has degenerated into a somnambulistic thud, with only a few actors truly displaying a staunch investment in their roles.

The familiar story of parole-breaking French convict Jean Valjean relentlessly pursued by rigid police inspector Javert stretches from 1815 through 1832 and taps into nearly every element of the human condition. Valjean later becomes the mayor of Montreuil-Sur-Mer, but the mark of Cain continues to burrow deep into his soul.

His saga continues with a promise at her mother Fantine’s death bed to rescue the child Cosette, who was being abusively raised by the Thenardiers -- opportunistic inn keepers. As the story presses on, Valjean helps a group of Parisian students during their futile revolt and lives long enough to see the adult Cosette reunited with Marius, the young fighter Valjean rescued from the barricade.

"Les Miserables" helped usher in an era of revolutionary operatic Cameron Mackintosh-produced musicals when it premiered in London in 1985. The entire production is sung and features a revolving stage that allows the action to move in a kinetically seamless fashion.

Today, unfortunately, rather than coax the drama out of every note, the artists deliver "Greatest Hits"-style renditions. Audiences, therefore, become intensely aware of a formula – not a heartfelt story. Most evident in the current production, the vocalists speed through most of their songs, rarely sculpting the music into the essence of their characters. Yet, ironically, their careless plowing- through each song cannot hide the disturbingly languid underpinnings of a staging that almost seems bored with its well-worn personae.

J.P. Dougherty and Aymee Garcia as the scheming Thenardiers are so cartoonishly over the top they confuse broad vulgarity with well-crafted parody. Stephanie Waters’ shrill and fidgety adult Cosette turns a character with depth into the stereotypically shallow ingenue. Stephen Brian Patterson as romantic lead Marius is merely competent. Neither Jayne Paterson’s Fantine nor Dina Lynne Morishita’s Eponine has been evocatively defined; and Randal Keith’s Jean Valjean is surprisingly flat and undeveloped.

Only Joseph Mahowald as Javert and Stephen Tewksbury as student-revolt leader Enjolras have a clear and truthful command of their characters’ multifaceted dimensions.

The production desperately cries out for a fiery, angry edge. As it stands, this "Les Miz" simply goes through a number of half-hearted, sanitized motions. And, if all the artists are going to do is sing the songs, why bother with a full production? The producers should consider doing a symphonic version or, better yet, start thinking about releasing the rights to regional theaters with the freshness and urgency needed to do justice to this 20th century musical-theater classic.•

"Les Miserables" runs through February 2 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets: $17-$72. Call 312-902-1500 or log onto www.lesmis.com.

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