Review: ‘Les Misérables’ at the Cadillac Palace is tour that’s both timelessly excellent and of the moment

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For years now, I’ve reviewed successive touring engagements of beloved, long-lived musicals like the 37-year-old “Les Misérables” with one overarching philosophy: Has the show been kept in excellent shape? And in the case of the epic West End and Broadway tale of Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean, which I have seen probably 20 times, I have plenty of comparatives.

This has flowed from my sense that people often pass on their seminal theatrical experiences to partners or younger family members. And there is nothing more embarrassing than shelling out the big bucks only to find that the show now is a pale facsimile of itself or, worse, ruined by a pretentious director who cares not for what it means to ordinary people.

But sitting there Friday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, surrounded by an audience that not only kept its phones well away but barely moved a collective muscle, I reflected that this approach has a major limitation: it doesn’t allow enough for how these productions can evolve and improve.

I’d surely make that enthusiastic case here.

Demonstrably on Friday, I was not alone in this feeling. The lobby of the Cadillac Palace Theatre was quite abuzz at intermission with the truly remarkable vocal prowess of this new touring cast (which includes the delightful Chicago favorites Matt Crowle and Christina Rose Hall as the Thénardiers). I heard the well-informed observation that any opera company in the nation would be glad to showcase this level of ensemble singing of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s internationally famous score, exquisite diction and all, and would struggle to combine such singing with such intense and emotional acting.

A critic risks not being heard when praising a show like this for stellar vocals: “Les Misérables” have always been well sung, not least because, unlike most touring musicals, it is much sought after and does not require well-trained dancers. But it’s worth remembering that for all those years, the show often was mix-and-matching cast members; it’s success meant there were multiple Fantines at once. Not any more. If you want to be in a Cameron Mackintosh production of “Les Misérables,” which is now directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell (the original Trevor Nunn production was retired from the road some years ago), this is your only opportunity in North America. And there are many who dream of one day standing center stage and singing “Bring Him Home,” “I Dreamed a Dream,” or “On My Own.”

But there are other factors. One is diversity.

Some shows virtue signal with their casting. Some get about the job of quietly offering opportunity to performers who would not have landed these roles 20 years ago, combining them with very experienced hands and finding excellence of a level that the show had not yet seen. Take, for example, the stunningly talented Haley Dortch, who plays Fantine. I’m told she’s only 22 years old or so, young for this part. Yet her rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was simply magnificent. I felt the same about the deeply experienced Nick Cartell’s work as Prisoner 24601, Devin Archer’s Enjolras and Christine Heesun Hwang’s intensely emotional Eponine; Hwang is very much in the moment, as they say, and that means that everything she does feels fresh and different. Not only did she never play the end of the show in advance; she never even anticipated the next lyric. Every word felt freshly minted.

Even if you are a “Les Mis” regular, I doubt you’ve seen these folk already in these roles; many in this cast are much younger than the show itself. But if you’ve been to the barricades before, what you are likely looking for is a chance to relive the emotional trajectory of a piece you surely remember and listen to stellar voices sing the music. And that’s why you should come back for this cast.

Two final notes. I’ve often griped about the sound reinforcement at the Cadillac Palace, a tricky venue to tune. It’s superb here. And there has been a lot of chatter among theater people of late about audiences are becoming boorish en masse, and incapable of paying attention.

Well, audience attention has to be earned, not demanded. On Friday night. It was like everyone was at church.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Les Misérables” (4 stars)

When: Through March 5

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 3 hours

Tickets: $55-$136 at 800-775-2000 and