Les Misérables, affectionately known as ‘les Miz’ to millions of theatre goers, has arrived in Dallas just a scant 29 years after its first English language release and what an overwhelming and stylish performance it is by the Dallas Theater Center. Visiting director Liesl Tommy has produced a technically excellent production of this favorite, yet still found opportunities to introduce contemporary references that are fresh and relevant.
She must have found her task daunting. Les Misérables is the most watched musical in history. First performed (in the English language) in 1985 by the Royal Shakespeare Company at London’s Barbican Center after a two-year development program led by director Cameron Mackintosh, it went on to be the longest-running musical ever in London and to a record run on Broadway. This spring, a Broadway revival began at the Imperial Theatre. Add in Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea and Spain as countries currently hosting major productions, and you have a show that ‘everyone’ in your audience has seen and already formed expectations.
Tommy’s production is faithful to every song and every word. The license is taken in the costume and design departments. Prison guards are costumed in Judge Dredd-style goon outfits and carry modern handguns. A financially successful Jean Valjean appears in a slick business suit (Brioni, to my eye). And the conflict at the barricades brought to mind the recent scenes in Kiev’s Independence Square, rather than a mid-19th century uprising in Paris, France.
As a through-sung production (there is essentially no spoken dialogue), the singing abilities of the cast are paramount. No character is more crucial to the stage success of Les Misérables than that of Jean Valjean. Nehal Joshi has the commanding voice and engaging screen presence to pull it off, if not the physical heft to fully convince in the rescue scene (of a man trapped beneath a runaway cart). He played the part of Enjolras in the 2006 Broadway revival so his own acting career in the play has been far from misérable. I was totally sold on Christia Mantzke’s performance as Mme. Thénardier, played as a bawdy nightclub hostess, utterly devoid of class. If she had paused to put her hand down her skirt and scratched her crotch it would have been perfectly in character. She is totally enthralling in every second on stage, without reducing the part to a “turn”. Her on-stage husband (played by Steven Michael Walters) is almost as good, depicting M. Thénardier as a roguish but despotic and totally unprincipled operator. The pair are the show’s running comedic thread. Also impressive are Allison Blackwell as Fantine who palpably exudes pathos in this, the saddest role in the play, and Justin Keyes, as Marius, who depicts the studious, intense student swept up in historical events with compelling drama. Incidentally, he almost made the cast of the New York revival last year, making the final cut before cast selection. While these castings stand out, there are no mis-castings here. Even the large number of players whose role is described simply as ‘ensemble’ sing with skill and enthusiasm.
An unqualified cheer as well to the unacknowledged stars of this show – the 13-strong ensemble of musicians. I could not find out their backgrounds by press time, but they maintained the tempo and filled out the emotional scope of the performers with aplomb.
As is commonplace nowadays, the players voices are amplified. At the appearance that I attended the audience was treated to an unplanned demonstration of the power of this technology when Thénardier’s microphone failed mid-track. ‘Merde’, he could have exclaimed, but instead he had the composure to continue without missing a beat, while his voice shriveled to a runk of its amplified self.
If you have not seen Les Misérables, this production provides you with an unmissable opportunity to see a professional production of the world’s most popular musical (sixty million attendees). Macy’s is sponsoring $15 “family seats” which are likely to be snapped up quickly. The production runs from June 27th thru August 17th at the Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre, 2400 Flora Street in downtown Dallas.