at the Auditorium Theatre

At last, two years after it opened in New York, it’s come to Chicago. It’s an event, a spectacle, a dress occasion, an opera, and a musical. It’s Les Miserables!

I don’t know. I don’t get it. Maybe if I’d seen the original Royal Shakespeare Company production–the one with real actors–I’d be more enthusiastic. But no one (except Victoria Clark, as Madame Thenardier) in this production can act. And everyone (except Hollis Resnik, as Fantine) sings in vibrato. Even the direction, by the celebrated team of John Caird and Trevor Nunn, comes across with that faded brilliance and practiced efficiency that always characterizes road shows that seem to know how to get from here to there but have somehow lost a sense of adventure. Still, the music is the same, as are the set, lighting, costumes, script. These things are intact, and may seem as fresh as ever to a virgin audience. But then I’d never seen the show before, and I walked away from it, well, underwhelmed.

The story, culled from Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel, is the saga of Jean Valjean, a convict who served 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. At the opening of the show, set in 1815, he is paroled and after some desperation steals again. But he’s saved from a life of crime by a generous and forgiving bishop. From then on, Jean Valjean devotes himself to a virtuous life, making sacrifices when need be for those less fortunate than himself. This prompts him to adopt Cosette, the bastard orphan whose mother was a saintly woman forced by circumstances into prostitution and the victim of an untimely death. Valjean raises and protects Cosette, all the time fleeing from the relentless Javert, a policeman determined to bring Valjean in on a parole violation. The years pass until, in 1832, during a futile insurrection in Paris, Valjean extends his wing to protect the revolutionary student, Marius, who has become Cosette’s true love. In the end, the aged and spent Valjean goes to his just reward, joining the ranks of all the sacrificial lambs who have laid down their impossible lives dreaming the impossible dream.

So you can see Les Miserables has everything: sentiment, revolution, and romance with a capital R for Romanticism. If you were going to see only one musical in your life, you might as well see this one and get the bloody thing over with. To inflate a quote from the film short Hardware Wars, “You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll kiss 40 bucks good-bye.”

But in an attempt to come to terms with the enormous popularity of Les Miserables, slobbered over by critics worldwide, you have to assume that there’s more at work here than media hype. For one thing, it’s an opera; every line is sung. And opera becomes far more accessible to an American audience when it’s in English. What’s more, Les Miserables is a musical in the Broadway tradition of English imports, with all the lavish production elements of a big musical, minus the silly choreography. There’s no sense in criticizing it for being dumb and superficial, because that’s the way that operas and musicals are and everyone accepts that. Not only that, Les Miserables comes to us by way of the Royal Shakespeare Company, complete with the lush stage picture, tableaux, and choreographed stage action that first bowled America over in Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade. Add some hype and you’ve got a blockbuster.

Yet it all comes down to the production, and what this production lacks is the actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company. The key roles of course are Valjean and Javert. As Valjean, Craig Schulman possesses the bulldog quality of an enlightened and virtuous proletarian, and he’s a strong vocalist, but he’s missing a certain testicularity. If only he had an emotional depth to match his vocal range. Anyhow, he managed to delight the opening night audience as the aging Valjean with superb control at a higher register bordering on falsetto, particularly in “Bring Him Home.” But somehow I expected more in the way of heroic endurance than falsetto and a hunkered imitation of osteoporosis. Charles Pistone (as Javert) offers little more in character development than a smooth transition from stern to stubborn to disillusioned.

Don’t expect better from the supporting cast. Cosette and her lover Marius (played by Tamara Jenkins and John Ruess) might as well be holding hands on top of a wedding cake. Enjolras, the leader of the student insurrection (played by Joe Locarro), simply moves through a repertoire of all-too-serious poses borrowed from communist propaganda posters. Michael McCormick (as Thenardier, the lowlife innkeeper) manages to overplay the low comedy without playing it at all. Only Victoria Clark (as Madame Thenardier) has any sauce or wit. If more of the cast showed Clark’s vitality, then maybe, just maybe, the dense social milieu of Les Miserables would come to life.

I really don’t know what to say about the music. I didn’t think it all that inspiring, or even memorable, but if you’ve listened to a tape of the show then you can judge for yourself. I found it rather homogeneous and, after three and a half hours, very homogeneous. Listen for Hollis Resnik (as Cosette’s mother), whose voice is as pure and clear and free of that sonorous, warbling vibrato–that plagues this cast–as you can get. And, if you like Cyndi Lauper or Bernadette Peters, which I don’t, then you might also enjoy the change-of-pace vocals by Renee Veneziale, who plays Eponine, the Thenardiers’ daughter.

The best thing about Les Miserables is the staging, provided, in absentia, by the directors and designers of the Royal Shakespeare Company. John Caird and Trevor Nunn know how to mount a scene, whether it’s on a barricade or a cafe table. Some of their compositions are pirated from paintings like The Raft of the Medusa or Guernica, but always skillfully and subliminally, without a camp effect. The only drawback is that the cast doesn’t quite provide the spirit to match the form, and so the impression is sometimes painterly.

The set, by John Napier, is outstanding. No doubt about it. There’s a huge turntable, which facilitates the epic scope of the play, bringing history to the audience in a clockwise whirlpool of events. It’s hard to imagine the play without it. The most eerily effective setting, I think, is the Paris sewer. Thanks to David Hersey’s lighting design, the cold daylight streams narrowly down from sewer grates placed so high and unreachable that you feel utterly trapped in the underworld. And the palette for both the set and Andreane Neofitou’s costumes is in no way flashy–grays and browns–wholly consistent with the tone of the script. All in all, Les Miserables is as much of a visual knockout as any play can be without a resonating intellectual or emotional depth. I promise you, your eyes will feast.

My lasting impression of Les Miserables is ironic. Because we’re talking Romanticism here. This was very hot stuff 150 years ago, when Hugo’s Hernani incited rioting in the street outside the theater on opening night. But the audience at Les Miserables didn’t seem particularly disposed to mounting the barricades and waving red flags at the forces of oppression. The closest thing to a riot at the Auditorium Theatre was the feeding frenzy at the bar during intermission. This irony is absurdly highlighted during the scene, just prior to the insurrection, when Enjolras sings, “Do we fight for the right of a night at the opera?” As Hugo himself might have observed, “Alas, we do.”