The Dallas Theater Center's New Take on Les Miserables Is As Tantalizing As It Is Unorthodox.
Thirty-four years after its premiere in Paris, Les Miserables has become one of the most popular musicals of all time — a classic, far as most are concerned.
As musical theater goes, this one's right at the top of the household-name heap. Hell, not even Russell Crowe's lackluster attempts at singing in last year's movie version could impede upon that.
Still, it remains something of a risk that Dallas Theater Center artistic director Kevin Moriarty has decided to exercise some artistic license upon the framework of the original stage production and make several changes in the show's presentation during his company's run of the show at the Wyly Theatre through August 17.
In this setting, which took a year and a half of planning to get right, the seating is arranged in a thrust setting, with the stage branching out into the audience. The high ceilings of this venue are factored in, too, decorated with hanging empty chairs from empty tables. The set is completed by dramatic backstage lighting atop of the visible orchestra sitting upstage. Microphones are used, too, but they're almost unnecessary; this is an intimate show; the players are just a few feet from the audience as they begin to sing the Les Mis' opening number.
Of course, this is just the start. Also notable is the diversity of the cast and costumes used. That's on purpose, according to ensemble member Daniel Duque-Estrada. This production, he says, values the talent and diversity of its actors over period-correct clothing — an approach that allowed casting directors to cast a wider net and eliminates specifications based upon appearance. In turn, what you get here is an undeniably talented and diverse cast.
“We wanted this show to reflect the cultural diversity around us and give it modern touches,” Duque-Estrada says.
Indeed: Actors' tattoos are visible and their costumes consist of John Varvatos-inspired looks with lace-up cargo boots and black armor battle suits for the military. Edward Watts, who plays the role of Javert in this production, says that the updated clothing is meant to convey the idea that the backbone of Les Miserables' story — a peasant man in 19th century France trying to make good in the world after a 19-year jail sentence for stealing bread for his starving sister's child — is still very much applicable to modern youth.
“It's important for a younger audience to get the idea that [Les Mis] isn't just a story from 1815,” Watts says. “It's a story we can all relate to that's happening in the world today. There are people who are repressed — and need that hand out — and have to be hopeful.”
This idea continues on throughout the entire show with new stage direction, choreography and fight scenes, as well as risque sexual depictions and very graphic examples of the upsetting events that take place within the story. Reality is all very apparent in this production. It is not recommended for children.
It is, however, recommended for most other audiences. Although this modern take on the show would break every rule in theater at the time of its original premiere, director Leisl Tommy's attempt at bringing the words of the original book to life in a way that was clear for her truly resonates. And maybe there's a reason for that: Surprisingly enough, Tommy is among perhaps a handful of theater types that hasn't previously seen a single production of Les Miserables. Without any preconceived ideas of the show's iconic imagery, she was able to free her mind and look at the words of the story for what they truly are.
As noticeably different as this take on the classic musical is, though, there's still plenty of familiar elements. Due to copyright issues surrounding the original script, the familiar music and lyrics all remain intact. You'll still “hear the people sing,” so to speak — and grandly at that. Even with your eyes closed, this production stands as an impressive one thanks to the vocal abilities of cast that hails from all over the world — and, in some cases, headed into this performance unaware of how different this version of the musical would be.
But the show is all the better for these changes. So too, perhaps, is DTC: Moriarity says this is only the beginning of his company's attempts toward modernizing timeless musicals. His hope? To reignite the love that audiences have for these shows in a new way that is thought-provoking, exciting and memorable. It's a plan, Moriarty says, that hopefully will show the world that these stories can still mean something to us modern day folks.
It's sound reasoning, to be sure. And, certainly, in the case of this Les Mis production, it works — all while serving as a nice reminder that, the changing world that surrounds us is more exciting than it is frightening, so long as its approached with the proper perspective.
Cover photo courtesy the Dallas Theater Center. Dallas Theater Center's production of Les Misérables is playing at the Wyly Theatre from through August 17. Tickets are now available for purchase here.