'Les Miserables' pivotal since early days for actor

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

For actor Devin Ilaw, “Les Miserables” has had a major role in at least two pivotal moments of his life.

Ilaw, a 2007 graduate of Carnegie Mellon University's School of Drama, plays Marius, the revolution-minded student who's in love with Cosette in the 25th anniversary production of “Les Miserables.”

The national touring production plays Tuesday through Jan. 27 at the Benedum Center as a presentation of PNC Broadway Across America — Pittsburgh.

Ilaw grew up in New Jersey and was studying to become a concert pianist when he had his first life-changing contact with “Les Miserables.”

“I was in middle school when I went to see (‘Les Miserables') on Broadway. I loved Marius. He was the perfect leading man,” he says.

After the show, Ilaw waited by the stage door and the actor who played Marius — Peter Lockyer — signed Ilaw's program and talked with him.

“He was the actor who inspired me,” Ilaw says.

That contact has now come full circle.

Lockyer is playing opposite Ilaw as Jean Valjean, Cosette's unofficial guardian.

“I think that's great,” Ilaw says.

Ilaw finally made the switch from pianist to actor while he was in high school.

“I love to find the story in just the music,” he says. “But now that I (also) have text, it's much better.”

Ilaw used the musical's song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” for his college auditions and credits it with getting him into CMU's School of Drama.

“That was the song that did it,” he says.

When he was reminiscing recently with Claudia Benack, one of his former CMU teachers, Ilaw says she reminded him that she cut him off mid-song to offer some suggestions.

“She fixed me,” he says.

The experience taught him a valuable lesson that stayed with him through getting his bachelor of fine arts in acting and musical theater and throughout his career.

“I learned from very early on to be very malleable, to be prepared for everything and to do everything,” Ilaw says. “It prepared me for (‘Les Miserables'), where so many things are going on.”

It has actually been nearly 28 years since “Les Miserables” opened in London, where it continues performances at the Queen's Theatre. After nearly three decades, the musical has been seen by 60 million people in 42 countries and performed in 21 languages.

In addition, since its Christmas Day opening, the film version of the musical has taken in more than $100 million at the box office.

Based on Victor Hugo's novel, it's an epic tale of Valjean, a former convict on the path to redemption in mid-19th-century France. Valjean is relentlessly pursued by his past crimes and the unforgiving Inspector Javert across a country filled with restless students, underpaid workers and uncaring officials. The score's now-familiar songs include “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Master of the House” and “Do You Hear the People Sing.”

“My favorite moment (involves) every singer in the show — ‘One Day More.' Almost every principal character is featured, introducing their own musical themes and telling their own story,” Ilaw says. “You realize when we are singing that song what kind of legacy ‘Les Mis' is. It's a timeless story. … It breaks people's hearts. It's about redemption.”

The cast of the national tour got a private screening of the “Les Miserables” movie.

“I loved it,” he says. “I was thankful that the movie was not pretty or clean. Like our production, it shows how gritty and dirty that period was.”

It also gave Ilaw a renewed appreciation for live theater.

“It made me respect more what I do every day,” he says. “They are making a big deal about film actors singing (as they are filmed). It's homage to live performers. We do this on stage every night.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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