Dallas — The Dallas Theater Center’s jolting, Brechtian new vision of Les Misérables at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre knocks the hell out of any cobwebs that might have been clinging to this venerable hit.
Think Grapes of Wrath meets RoboCop. Think Mother Courage meets the Occupy Movement. Think Norma Rae meets Cabaret. Think what might happen if Victor Hugo’s passionate story busted loose from its safely historical time period and charged forward—into a space that looks uncomfortably like the world we know.
This is wide-awake theater, fiercely directed by South African-born Liesl Tommy, who keeps every line of the show intact but nonetheless imagines a Les Miz plucked up and set down in a more global arena. Nominally, the story still plays out in early 19th-century France, but the visuals signal something different: police radios crackle and revolutions are planned on laptops; black-armored enforcers carry automatic weapons, while the poor fight back not with waving banners but political signs:
“Fair Wages for All”
“Still Waiting on the VA”
Nothing essential has changed in DTC’s regional professional premiere of the show by book/songwriter Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg. As always, this Les Misérables is a story about the neverending search for justice in an unjust world, and a story about love: the kind of love that holds us up even as the world disappoints. And we mean no disrespect to the original concept of the musical, the only show that’s ever brought a Big Tough Guy we know to floods of tears. It’s great, now and (probably) forever. But DTC’s reimagining lets us know it can be done: Les Miz can change, survive—and still bring the crowd to its feet.
Just one example: unjustly fired factory worker Fantine (the wonderful Allison Blackwell), dressed in faded clothes lifted from a Depression-era laundry basket, sings of the modest dreams she once had, and “the hell” she’s now living. Abandoned by her child’s father, fired by a sexually abusive boss, desperate for any job, she’s not a period figure any more—she looks like one of us, a woman we might know.
Not every update hits with this much force—but many do, accumulating into an experience of live theater at its most electric. The rough edges of some early scenes provoked a few walkouts in the audience, and are definitely not for the little ones—but nobody will fall asleep.
John Coyne’s urban-industrial set design is unsettling and effective—and looks nothing like Paris. Stacked, corrugated boxes tower over the central action, serving as spots for character commentary, song—or sniper fire. A wide, raked thrust stage leads down to the first rows of the audience, and music director Sinai Tabak and his ensemble fill an upper-level bridge between the towers. Dramatic spotlighting by designer Colin K. Bills directs our attention throughout, but both he and sound guru Ray Nardelli shine in the second-act battle scenes, where explosive flashes mix with the sounds of gunfire (and a S.W.A.T. team prowls the audience): we’re all left a little shell-shocked.
DTC has assembled a deep-bench cast: smaller ensemble parts are filled by actors who’ve played the leads in productions at DTC and other North Texas companies, and at theaters around the U.S. Their experience shows, especially in the tremendously physical way they inhabit the stage space—helped along by fight direction from Jeffrey Colangelo and choreography by Christopher Windom, whose tribal-warrior version of the famous first-act march is an image not soon forgotten.
But everything revolves around Nehal Joshi’s magnetic portrayal of Jean Valjean. Slight and intense, he comes on in a white heat of anger that’s a rather different take on the role. Yes, he’s been brutally punished for a compassionate crime—stealing bread for his sister’s starving child—but this Valjean feels like a hothead who, even before prison, was all too ready to plunge into trouble. That makes the story of his conversion and redemption, his determination to achieve a loving and selfless life, even more moving.
Joshi, who played the student leader Enjolras in the 2006 Broadway revival of Les Misérables and was also in Roundabout Theatre’s The Threepenny Opera, is familiar to DTC audiences from 2008’s The Who’s Tommy (he played Captain Walker). He has a fine, clarion-clear tenor voice, and is a compelling performer both in tough and tender scenes. The son of Indian immigrants, Joshi leads a cast so ethnically diverse it seems to have blasted beyond the concept of color-blind, into territory even closer to the time and place where we all stop mentioning it…forever.
Allison Blackwell, heartbreaking and beautiful as a womanly Fantine, delivers “I Dreamed a Dream” and other songs in a resonant mezzo voice that has everything she needs to make us feel her love and despair. Edward Watts is a blunt instrument as obsessed police officer Javert, who pursues Valjean for years; the only beautiful thing about this jackbooted stiff is Watts’ gorgeously operatic voice. Steven Michael Walters, last seen in DTC’s Clybourne Park, gives innkeeper Thénardier a hipster-slime vibe, and Christia Mantzke makes a dark-comic DTC debut as his trash-glam Madame. Designer Jacob A. Climer’s costumes for the couple are a comic highlight, but he’s effective in darker tones as well: the pops of red in his outfits for the student rebels—berets, T-shirts, gloves—anticipate the bloody battle ahead.
The meet-cute couple of the evening, wealthy student rebel Marius (Justin Keyes) and Fantine’s daughter Cosette (Dorcas Leung), adopted and sheltered by Valjean, are up against the fact that as written, these two just aren’t very compelling characters—but both actors are in great voice and make a believably loving pair. Elizabeth Judd is a spunky, lovelorn Eponine; DTC company member Hassan El-Amin makes his mark in a brief turn as the Bishop who turns Valjean’s life around; and as student rebel Enjolras, John Campione (Uptown Players’ Kiss of the Spider Woman, Theatre Three’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) has a sing-out voice that might make anyone follow him into battle. At the Saturday matinee seen for this review, Little Cosette’s role was sweetly sung by Jemma Kosanke (she alternates with Salma Salinas); little Eponine was a sprightly Libby Roy (she alternates with Abby Chapman); and Gavroche (Spencer Sloan in the performance reviewed, alternating with Mark Hancock) made us cry—again—as the boy who’s first to fall.
Les Miz is very bleak at the end, and it always has been, despite audiences who see a happy ending: Maurius and Cosette go off together, and all the dead flap away into heaven. But really, the story is not hopeful about the future; as the song says, “tomorrow never came.” The people are too frightened to join in the revolution, the status quo remains, and moral of the story seems to be that individual redemption, while worthy—“To love another person is to see the face of God”—is all we can reasonably expect in this hard world. It’s a vision of the world that’s as relevant and resonant as the headlines, where the right to stand up against overwhelming influence and power seems to be draining away.
Director Liesl Tommy knows the fight against oppression: she grew up in one of the segregated townships of apartheid South Africa. When she was 15 years old, the family moved to the Boston area (her father had been a Fulbright scholar at MIT), where Tommy’s early instincts as a director were nurtured at Brown University and Trinity Repertory Company. Her many credits include the DTC world premiere co-production of The Good Negro with The Public Theater in New York, and a notable production of Lynn Nottage’s harrowing play Ruined at Huntington Theatre in Boston. She’s directed across the United States, and in Canada, Denmark and Kenya.
Tommy once told a Boston-area interviewer that renewing a theater classic gives her a sense of freedom—because “the definitive production has already been done” and she can let her imagination soar. Tommy’s provocative re-do of Les Misérables for the DTC, visceral and vibrant, hits very close to home—and may keep us thinking and questioning far longer than we’d ever have imagined.
Victor Hugo would be happy.
» Below is a DTC-produced video in which director Liesl Tommy talks about her vision for this production: