I don’t consider myself a purist, but I’ve never understood why some directors feel the need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to interpreting a beloved musical property. Setting CATS in a kill shelter isn’t going to enhance the show, no matter how valid your passion may be for the ethical treatment of animals.
The same goes for the recent film of Les Miserables. From the opening moments, I was already questioning why Jean Valjean was hauling a huge ship into a harbor instead of pounding rocks on the chain gang. And every time a lyric was altered in the movie, I instantly bristled and was taken out of the action.
So I was wary, going into director Liesl Tommy’s reimagining of Les Miserables, which opened on July 4th at Dallas Theater Center’s Wyly Theater. Make that EXTREMELY wary. True, I was intrigued by the photos I had seen of a jackbooted Javert and a Valjean who looked like he had just come off the set of an all-male season of Orange Is the New Black. I can practically sing along to Les Miz start to finish, so I was worried I was in for three hours of heavy-handed hit-you-over-the-head restaging that was not as clever as it wanted to be.
Turns out, I was almost completely wrong. Tommy has set the show in a “present and future revolution”, so gone is France as the actual location of the action (regardless of what the standard text in the program tells you, this is not 19th Century France). There are shades of the conflicts we see in Syria, Egypt, Iraq and, most recently, the ongoing problems with Israel and Palestine. There are also hints of our own struggles here in the U.S.: families being evicted from their homes, “Foreclosure” signs used as a rallying point and protest signs calling for equal wages for equal work.
Surprisingly, this all fits seamlessly into one of the most beloved musicals of our time. The creative team has wisely kept the lyrics intact (almost completely) and most of the songs sound exactly how you want them to sound. The result, however, is a sense of immediacy that you wouldn’t see from the productions that have come before this one. The audience isn’t watching a quaint, once upon a time struggle. We’re living in a world that’s only a riot away from living Les Miserables. I couldn’t have predicted it going in, but the reworked concept is one of the best things about DTC’s production.
Many of the other best things are the cast members. A mix of local and assembled out-of-town talent sings this Les Miz better than any pseudo-purist could hope. “At the End of the Day”, “Red and Black” and “One Day More” are every bit as stirring as you want them to be, and a lot of the solos (especially any time John Campione’s Enjolras opens his mouth) are often superior to any other vocalists I’ve experienced.
Nehal Joshi is probably not the Jean Valjean you expect. A veteran of the Broadway revival of Les Miserables (Legles/Enjolras understudy) and DTC’s Tommy and Arsenic and Old Lace, Joshi is closer to the Hugh Jackman Valjean emotionally, but still only barely similar physically. His build is slight, his head is shaved, and there’s no mistaking the Middle-Eastern vibe. Yet his distinctions from traditional Valjeans is key to the success of this Les Miz. He demands fresh eyes from the devotees, just as the design of the show shocks you away from past prejudices in the staging of what has become a beloved chestnut. Joshi’s emotions are worn as prominently as that brand across his chest, and they turn his last scenes into a gut-wrenching catharsis I haven’t witnessed since the very first time I saw the musical.
Also a jolt to the memory bank? The depiction of the Thenardiers, notorious bottom-feeders who are supposed to be French but are usually portrayed as Cockney trash with blacked-out teeth (in case you’ve forgotten that liberties have always been taken in regards to place and time in Les Miz). The Master of the House is played by Steven Walters as a suave, charismatic snake of a man, complete with stylish dreads and a frock-coat you’d expect an underground rock star to wear. Madame Thenardier (Christia Mantzke) is practically an American reality TV star-effer (watch for when she congratulates Cosette at her wedding). This pair is proof that the “fresh eyes” approach works with Les Miserables. Even those who take issue with some of the other retools will have to admit they enjoyed the Thenardiers.
Not all of the casting works. Allison Blackwell’s Fantine is sometimes too shrill and sometimes too hearty to be believed as the frail, broken down single mother who only wants to do what’s best for her child. Justin Keyes, as Marius, doesn’t give his Act Two solo (fan favorite “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”) the gravity it needs. It should build to a cathartic but beautiful ugly-cry set to music, but it sadly never leaves the contemplative stage.
The rest of the casting sets this production in a “post-racial” world, one which reinforces the it-could-happen-anywhere message of the show. Normally, I would be driven batty by a Caucasian Cosette who somehow grows up to be Asian, but it didn’t matter in the world this director has created. I have seen an African-American Mme. Thenardier in a previous production, and it stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb in 19th Century France. Race is irrelevant in this Les Miz (and yet, somehow, all-important). We are all citizens of the world we’ve created, and we live with the consequences of our action or inertia, regardless of countries’ borders.
I normally don’t like to give too much away in my reviews, but a lot of conversation has developed over certain aspects of this production. I am personally uncomfortable with the desensitization of violence against women in our culture. We teach women not to be assaulted, rather than teaching men that they shouldn’t assault women. The character of Fantine is told that “Life has dropped you at the bottom of the heap”, and normally the audience is just supposed to fill in the blanks as to what that should mean. While I can’t imagine what it’s like to be sexually assaulted, are we always serving the victims when we quietly push the reality of sexual violence to the imagination? Is there validity in putting it out there, in all its ugliness, and declaring that our society practically condones this behavior with its unexpressed complicity? Fantine is an unwilling prostitute who is faced with the reality of what life has done to her. I’m not sure what is served by demanding that the final act that breaks her spirit happen off-stage, so that we can feel better about ourselves.
Having said that, this is definitely not a Les Miserables for theatre-going children. Some have suggested that a trigger warning be given, and I’m not exactly against that. At the very least, DTC should strongly declare the adult situations and themes that exist in this re-imagination (in fact, the theater’s website currently states “Recommended for ages 13 and above. This production contains suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.”). “Lovely Ladies” is a song with lyrics about a day in the life of a hooker. This production backs those lyrics up with images that even made me blush. But appropriate for the scene? In my opinion, yes.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle against seeing this production is actually getting a seat to it. A quick look at a Tuesday night performance shows only a few tickets available for $75-$85 for adults. Macy’s is sponsoring a limited number of “family seats” at $15, but there’s no indication (that I could find) of how or where one could purchase such seats. Ultimately, the only way to know if this Les Miserables works for you is to witness it. Take it from a great big skeptic: I was prepared to hate it, yet I left the theater galvanized by seeing one of my all-time favorite musicals in a brand new light.
Les Miserables, presented by Dallas Theater Center, runs through August 17th at the Wyly Theater, 2400 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201. For ticketing info, visit www.dallastheatercenter.org or call (214) 880-0202.