Turns out the revolutionary way to stage Les Misérables is to take the French revolutionaries out of it entirely. No frilly shirts. No peasants waving big red flags. None of that ghastly marching-in-place every other Les Miz (or Les Mis, if you prefer) uses for clap-bait toward the end of the 90-minute first act.
Dallas Theater Center's new production of the musical moves it into now – or so it seems, though the program still says "France, 1815-1832" – and frames the epic story by Victor Hugo as a battle between contemporary classes of haves and have-nots. Between those Les Miz fanatics who can pay only $15 a ticket to perch in the third balcony rafters at the Wyly Theatre and those who can afford the $175 downstairs seats. It's Occupy Wyly with three-plus hours of hot guys in tight trousers singing and glaring at each other. With guns.
Director Liesl Tommy makes this a Les Miz for everybody who is les tired of every other Les Miz, turning what is so often a turgid evening of operatic screeching (at least in the touring productions that have come here in recent years) into something fresh and thrilling. She starts with the casting of some exceptionally gorgeous lead actors. There's no sexier Javert than Edward Watts, a tall silver fox with a booming baritone, nor a more extravagantly attractive Enjolras than John Campione, who's also gifted with a heavenly voice. Nehal Joshi, last seen in DTC's The Who's Tommy, is a bald and beautiful Jean Valjean.
Are they the characters as novelist Hugo described them? Who cares? Tommy's eye for talented hunkery (with casting assistance by DTC's Tiffany Hobbs) has amped up the sexiness factor in this monster of a musical. Hugo, girl.
Staged on a massive three-level set by designer John Coyne, with guard towers, corrugated tin walls, a hundred chairs dangling symbolically from the ceiling and a bridge where the orchestra led by Sinai Tabak also sits, this Les Misérables looks like the set of an action flick. (Lighting by Collin K. Bills creates some eye-popping effects. Costumes by Jacob A. Climer have comic book wit with a dash of Darth Vader sci-fi menace.)
The show opens with Valjean dragged out in an orange prison jumpsuit. After 19 years in stir for stealing bread, he's paroled by sadistic jailer Javert. But Valjean, believing success is the best revenge, jumps parole, changes his identity and becomes a wealthy businessman, adopting the child Cosette (Jemma Kosanke, alternating with Salma Salinas) as a deathbed favor to her dying prostitute mother Fantine (Allison Blackwell).
Having grown up in luxury, older Cosette (Dorcas Leung) falls in love with idealistic student protester Marius (Justin Keyes). That's a heartbreaker for Eponine (Elizabeth Judd), who joins the protest movement to keep any eye on Marius. Javert dons a disguise to spy on the group, led by Enjolras, planning an uprising against the robber barons, but he's exposed by nemesis Valjean, who fights on the side of the peasants.
The adaptation of the novel by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Shönberg (who wrote the music; lyrics are by Herbert Kretzmer) is a confounding overlapping of complicated romances and tragedies involving heroes, heroines and broadly comedic villains. The multi-layered plot jolts in sudden flash-forwards as characters age decades between songs. There are bloody battle scenes. It can be confusing, but director Tommy has made sure her cast puts clarity ahead of vocal gymnastics. This is the rare Les Miz in which every word of every lyric is audible. And while some of Kretzmer's lyrics are downright silly – he rhymes "high society" with "apple-piety" – it does help to know what they're singing about.
The typical Les Miz leans heavily toward melodrama. The dreadful 2012 movie musical version focused on actress Anne Hathaway's drippy nostrils and Hugh Jackman's vibrato. DTC lightens the load by playing up the low comedy. Resident company member Steven Walters is unrecognizable under a pile of dusty dreadlocks as the greedy innkeeper, Monsieur Thénardier. He brings down the house singing "Master of the House" (which will forever be linked for some of us to Seinfeld's George Costanza), gleefully picking the pockets of everyone onstage. As his slatternly wife, Christia Mantzke, all boobs and candy-red wig, is deliciously grotesque; part Miss Hannigan from Annie, part Cruella de Vil. (Warning to parents: The scenes at the inn are replete with simulated blowjobs and rumpy-pumpy.)
What keeps this Les Miz throbbing is the powerful blend of male voices and the strong acting by all the men in the ensemble. Watts and Joshi are New York imports, but this cast features some of DFW's top male musical theater stars, including Campione (seen recently at Uptown Players and Lyric Stage), Christopher Deaton (Casa Manana), Jonathan Bragg (also a Lyric regular), plus DTC company members Hassan El-Amin, Alex Organ and Daniel Duque-Estrada, all playing multiple roles. The husky roar on the act one anthem "Do You Hear the People Sing?" is given a manly kick when, instead of that marching business, the guys perform a muscular "Haka," the stomping Maori warrior dance. Yowza.
All the big numbers are done with admirable emphasis on real emotions. Joshi's eyes glisten with tears on the soaring, prayerful "Bring Him Home." Watts takes a dramatic leap (thanks to some clever stagecraft) when Javert sings himself to death in the second act.
Not to give the women in the show short shrift; they are simply outdone by the men. Well, all except for tiny Jemma Kosanke as the little Cosette, singing "Castle in the Clouds" like an angel. How does a wee Anglo girl grow up to be an Asian woman (Leung)? Let us not ask such a question, nor wonder why all the good guys in this production are ethnic and all the bad guys are white.
Do you hear the people sing? It's musical theater. And in such a mighty, magical Les Misérables, such matters are best left, like all those chairs on Coyne's set, up in the air.