DALLAS It has been nearly three decades since the musical Les Miserables was upgraded from concept album to West End — and subsequently Broadway and world — stage sensation. And it’s taken that long for a director to decide that it’s worthy of reinvention.
That would be South African-born Liesl Tommy, who gives the show a severe makeover as the season-closing production at Dallas Theater Center. Because Les Miz has been playing on Broadway and on national tour for much of these three decades, American regional theaters have been denied rights for original productions — until now, when it’s popping up on seasons from Seattle to Austin to Portland, Maine. Many of these productions come with marketing buzzwords like “all new!” and “immersive” to erase images of the turntable-centric Trevor Nunn production everyone has seen; but it’s doubtful any of them has gone as far as DTC.
The first clue is the very modern riot police and prisoners in orange jumpsuits in the At the End of the Day sequence on a raked stage, surrounded by guard towers, at the Wyly Theatre (scenic design by John Coyne). From there, contemporary business suits, cellphones and costumes of that fuzzy era the movies label “apocalyptic” (costumes by Jacob A. Climer) populate the proceedings. The dialogue, lyrics, songs and story are the same; visual references are different. The student uprising is akin to an Occupy movement protest, albeit a much more violent one. No different than a production of Macbeth that keeps the Bard’s language but costumes it in, say, the Mafia world — with guns.
It’s a good guess that there will be silent protests at this production from Les Miz purists expecting the look to be solidly Paris in the early to mid-1800s — the same one that remained static forever, until the shortened version a few years ago. But here’s the beauty about theatrical reinvention: It’s only a real problem when it’s offensively off the mark.
Yes, Tommy’s DTC production is occasionally distracting and a few times off-putting (the Lovely Ladies number is about 10 times raunchier here — but it is a scene in a brothel, after all). Still, at the end of the day, the concept comes across, if with the force of a barricade-busting wrecking ball. And there are references to the original production, such as Javert’s death, where instead of the bridge creating the illusion of falling, it’s the chairs that had been suspended mid-air.
In performance is where this production really soars, thanks to high-quality vocals throughout (music direction by Sinai Tabak), especially Edward Watts as Javert and, to a lesser degree, the against-type Nehal Joshi as Jean Valjean. Joshi is smaller in stature than a man known for his strength, but with a few vocal quibbles (where is the true pianissimo in Bring Him Home?), he’s rousing on the big notes.
There’s also beautiful vocal work from Justin Keyes as Marius, Elizabeth Judd as Eponine (love her anger in On My Own) and John Campione as Enjolras. And while the characters of M. and Mme. Thenardier are always scene-stealers, Steven Michael Walters and Christia Mantzke take it into overdrive, with outstanding comic timing (the outrageous dreads on Walters don’t hurt).
No, it’s not your mama’s Les Miz, but for those of us who were long-ago bored by the original version — sadly, Claude-Michel Schonberg’s music is still remarkably uninteresting, even with songs that stick with you, thanks to Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer’s simplistic but effective lyrics; and let’s not mention Valjean’s near Wagnerian-length death — Tommy has given us a new conversation over a title that has entered the oeuvre of warhorse musicals. This is especially true now that the spate of professional productions means that every community theater will perform it every other season.
What she and DTC have done with this Les Miz is not a revolutionary stretch. Here, the changes warrant a mere shrug. Yeah, you’ve proven that the experiment can work. Can we move on now?