Russell M. Dembin visited the revolutionary modern-dress, ‘immersive’ staging of Les Misérables at the Dallas Theater Center.
When a musical has been a global sensation for three decades and has become an Oscar-winning film, what could possibly add to its achievement? When said play is about a revolution, the situation calls for a revolutionary production. And that’s exactly what Dallas Theater Center gave Les Misérables.
The movie strayed just moderately from the well-known stage version (with a score, of course, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer), although it incorporated visual elements from Victor Hugo’s original novel. The current Broadway revival, like the 25th anniversary tour, includes projections based on Hugo’s drawings. Though her approach was less traditional, director Liesl Tommy’s inspiration for her modernised staging at the Wyly Theatre came directly from the book – she’d never seen the play or its Hollywood adaptation.
Perhaps starting this way helped Tommy stay true to the text while freeing the piece from expectations, and the result was a sharply immediate experience. “There is a sense of timelessness that I’m trying to explore with this production, a sense that it could have taken place in the 1800s, or taken place today, or taken place in the future,” she noted in a video on Dallas Theater Center’s YouTube channel. The show successfully blurred the line between the present and the yet-to-come. Christopher Windom’s choreography for the revolutionaries in ‘One Day More’ incorporated elements of street movement or pre-1980s hip-hop, rather than resembling the march-in-place step employed in previous incarnations.
Many choices poignantly recalled current events: the silver Valjean steals in an early scene was a religious emblem that combined a star and crescent, a Star of David, and a cross, hinting at optimism for an end to the bloodshed in the Middle East. In Jacob A. Climer’s costume design, the various police and army personnel were dressed in hard shell body armour and face masks. Javert’s outfit was the only exception – his face was exposed, wearing in his first appearance an all-black police uniform and sunglasses. The constant presence of these military and police figures echoed the recent violence in riot-torn Ferguson, Missouri.
Since performances began months ago, this last resonance was coincidental, but the creative team did strive to bring the play physically into the audience’s world. Press materials labelled the production immersive, and even though that term might apply more fully to works like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More and New York City’s Speakeasy Dollhouse series, the actors in Les Mis often entered and exited through voms (corridors built beneath or behind the seats of a theatre), in certain numbers sang their parts from the audience, and the young men of the ABC Café distributed red-and-black flyers to support their cause. Moreover, John Coyne’s raked stage practically came out into the audience. Colin K. Bills’ use of light and shadow heightened the dramatic tension of the gray, nearly post-apocalyptic setting, which also featured suspended chairs (alluding to ‘Empty Chairs At Empty Tables’ and emphasising the state of uncertainty and disorder).
With a show so heavily branded, it might not be surprising that this radical concept upset some theatregoers—and maybe that’s a good thing. Every choice was justified: the graphic sexuality in ‘Lovely Ladies’ might have offended some, but Hugo described the scene that way.
Others might have been puzzled by the contemporary/futuristic design for a musical set in the 19th century, yet there’s a dramaturgical basis for that conceit. Shakespeare’s work is frequently presented in updated settings, and that convention – cleverly spoofed in American satirical news publication The Onion — is enabled in part by the plays’ anachronisms. (Downton Abbey’s recent water bottle gaffe offers less of an artistic benefit, beyond the meme it inspired.)
Similar to the Bard’s chronological inconsistencies, the pop-inflected score of Les Mis – conducted by musical director Sinai Tabak and masterfully sung by Nehal Joshi (Jean Valjean), Edward Watts (Javert), Allison Blackwell (Fantine), Elizabeth Judd (Eponine), Justin Keyes (Marius), John Campione (Enjolras) and the rest of the company – fostered a playful relationship to time. The seeds for such a creative upheaval were therefore embedded in the piece. Maybe this revolution, like the one depicted in the show, was just waiting to happen.