Illustration by Ben Beechener
Les Misérables is undoubtedly a behemoth in the theatre world. It’s the longest running musical on the West End, and is up in the top ten on Broadway. In that time, very little has changed about the show. Other than a brief stint as a staged concert, the odd lyric change, and a somewhat new staging for 2020 (rest in peace to the revolving stage, you will be missed), it remains pretty much the same experience today as in 1985 when it first opened. I love the West End production, but in my opinion, Les Misérables is crying out for someone to do something different with it. In 2014, the Dallas Theatre Centre in Texas did just that. The music and lyrics remain largely unchanged, but the production design sets it in the modern day, and gives audiences a whole new perspective on the show.
At first glance it seems rather odd to set a show that is quite explicitly about early 19th century France in the vaguely American modern day. Valjean goes from modern prison uniform to sharp suits as the Mayor, Javert is frighteningly outfitted in a police uniform complete with leather trench coat, and Les Amis de l’ABC are all dressed like dark academia types you might spot hanging around the Rad Cam. The show is visually at odds with its own material, which is admittedly jarring at first, but the design is so convincingly done that you quickly assimilate into its world. There are a few aspects that I’m not convinced by. A big one is Enjolras’s bizarre barricades ensemble of a camo vest jacket with two roaring tiger patches on it and a bright red beret. That being said, on the whole the costuming and set of the show are excellent.
The cast of this show are fantastic. There are no weak links – every performance is wonderful and the actors bring something unique to their characters. Justin Keyes as Marius is a standout for me – he gives Marius an endearing awkwardness which makes his shell-shocked state during ‘Empty Chairs at Empty Tables’ all the more heart-breaking. He and Dorcas Leung as Cosette are wonderful together, and their take on ‘A Heart Full Of Love’ turns it from sickly sweet to almost a comedy song, which I love. The Thenardiers (Steven Michael Waters and Christia Mantzke) steal the show in every scene they’re in. They’re hilarious, but the performances also never let you forget they’re arguably the closest characters Les Mis has to villains. Nehal Joshi is excellent as Valjean, and I could go on in this manner but I’d be here all day. A bold production like this needs an exceptionally strong cast, and that’s exactly what it has.
The modernisation of the show is brilliant in that it highlights the relevance of the themes of Les Misérables to today’s world. It is easy to see some of the more upsetting aspects of Les Mis – the brutality of the criminal justice system, the merciless killing of the student revolutionaries and the extreme poverty many characters face to name a few – as relics of a bygone age, when they are presented to you in the historical context of the original staging of the show. By playing out the exact same events in a modernised context, it becomes clear that these issues are still very much present in today’s world, and that audiences should care about them. It encourages them to think about the social issues the show presents in a way they may not consider when Les Mis is shown as a historical piece.
Director Liesl Tommy had neither seen the stage show nor the 2012 film before putting on her version, and it is all the better for it. Les Mis at the DTC is unhindered by the baggage that comes with staging a long-running successful musical, and the audience expectations that come with it. The result is a genuine and personal adaptation that holds a certain authenticity that the West End and Broadway productions tend to lack. The choreography during ‘One Day More’, for example, was inspired by anti-apartheid protesters in her birthplace of South Africa singing and dancing the Toyi-toyi. Tommy’s attention to detail in terms of the imagery of the show in this way makes it that much more arresting and immersive for the audience. A scene that will always stick with me is after the fall of the barricades; the stage is silent save for muffled police radio chatter while officers in riot gear check if all the students are really dead. Going from the epic music of the final battle and Enjolras’s defiant last stand to this simple, cold reality is uncomfortable to watch, but so effective in underlining the horror of the events the audience have just witnessed.
I wish more companies would take risks with Les Mis like the Dallas Theatre Centre did. The West End and Broadway productions are great pieces of theatre, but ultimately it feels like they are something you watch, whereas Les Mis at the DTC is something you experience. I cannot praise it highly enough.