Various old "Les Miserables" hands — and there are now many of us who've seen this great musical maybe 25 times over 25 years — were wandering Friday night around the lobby of the Cadillac Palace Theatre rather gobsmacked, as they used to say on the Paris barricades. Even by intermission it was clear that the show seemed uncommonly raw, unusually emotional, strikingly intense, and the singing, well, it just seemed unusually expeditious in its journey to one's gut.
When Fantine (Betsy Morgan) croaked in Act 1, you could see a lot of eyes filling with tears. When little Gavroche (Joshua Colley) bit the dust in battle later on, the pain seemed much sharper than usual. Javert (Andrew Varela) had a demise that seemed more troubling than gladdening. Even Eponine — whom I can no longer see without thinking of Debbie Gibson in that jaunty headgear — had a certain uncommon gravitas, via the poignant Briana Carlson-Goodman. One found oneself wanting to mop up her blood after that Marius wail — "There's something wet upon your hair/Oh God, it's everywhere" — that reminds us all just how very much a single lyrical line can achieve in this masterpiece.
So, que pasa with the money-spinning Cameron Mackintosh extravaganza Friday? Was everybody bulking up for the movie this Christmas? Perhaps. But you won't hear singing at your multiplex like you can currently hear at the Cadillac Palace Theatre. In Hollywood, other factors intervene.
Be that as it may, the more mediocre stage musicals you see, the more you realize that "Les Miz" stands alone in its dramatic and emotional achievements. This is becoming even clearer now that we're turning, turning through the years. It begins, of course, with the power of the tumultuous Victor Hugo story, which features people in bone-chilling crises from Page 1 and never lets up. The storytelling is formidable; the theatricalization spectacular. I could go on and on. I have many times before. At "Les Miz," where nobody much has to dance, they can cast for singers, and so they surely have. But what was striking me Friday was how Claude-Michel Schonberg's score is now passing from generation to generation, like any opera or great novel or any leading cultural manifestation of an era. And the 1980s were otherwise a bit of a wasteland, weren't they?
When this so-called 25th-anniversary production was first seen in Chicago nearly two years ago, it was very early in the tour. We all were focused on how much Laurence Connor and James Powell's new production had changed the Trevor Nunn original. People missed the famous turntable, and Enjolras' equally famous strut with the flag, for good reason, but the new version, I noted at the time, also had replaced pastiche with honesty in certain key moments.
But I now think that I was comparing something new with something richly seasoned. Those first weeks featured performers who didn't fully own the material. The merits of this new staging, which feels every bit as epic, are far, far more evident now. The show moves much more quickly. It feels far more secure. The new cast raises the stakes and keeps everything teetering in the balance throughout.
One notable benefit is simplicity. Songs like "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" benefit from a visual uncluttering. So does "On My Own." But I also gained new appreciation for the way Connor and Powell rethink the myriad transitions and enhance the emotional logic of the show: For example, Javert sees the dead Gavroche on a cart, which sends him into a moral tailspin, making his subsequent acts more logical. There are many moments like that. And with the new casting — the casting against time-worn type — of the short-statured Peter Lockyer as Jean Valjean, you get more of a sense of old Prisoner 24601's vulnerability. Most Jean Valjeans are alpha males with big upper registers. Lockyer scrambles more around the edges, striving, seeking, never being confident enough to rest. It is a central performance with genuine revelations — matched by Morgan, a truly exquisite Fantine, and by Varela, who understands that Javert's apparent surety is just a cover for his total lack thereof.
I still think that the one inevitable flaw of this new, darker, more realistic staging is that it makes the Thenardiers' repeat appearances feel out of place (there is no room, now, for vaudeville, even though it's baked into the material). But both Shawna M. Hamic and Timothy Gulan make the first scene of the once-comic innkeepers genuinely disturbing.
Overall, this is the best road company of "Les Miz" in many, many years. The 25th anniversary production now refreshes and rethinks without sacrificing any singularity of intensity or artistic occasion.
So, there are two significant questions with a show like this that has spent so much time in our city. Are you safe to take a young someone who has not grown up with this piece, and do you feel your love for the show will be honored in this production with these performers? You are, and you do. If it were not thus, and it sometimes has not been thus, I'd warn you away with all the passion I could muster.
Should you go back alone? You should. There are new feelings, sensations, small revelations, ownerships, communications. And there are reminders of your past.
Through Dec. 2 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.; 3 hours; tickets: $18-$95 at 312-977-1710 or broadwayinchicago.com