A musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg
Based on a novel by Victor Hugo
Music by Claude-Michel Schonberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Original French Text by Alain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel
Additional Material by James Fentin
Adapted and originally directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird
Orchestrations by John Cameron
Dallas Theater Center
PLEASE NOTE: Due to the subject matter that is discussed within this review, it is strongly suggested that children under the age of 16 not read this review.
Reviewed Performance 7/4/2014
Reviewed by John Garcia, Senior Chief Critic/Editor/Founder for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
If you are a regular reader of my reviews then you are clearly aware of what my point of view or opinions are because of what pours out from my critiques and writing. You are also quite aware from my reviews that I groan, moan, and complain endlessly when it comes to theater companies producing and presenting shows that have been done ad nauseam around the metroplex.
When theaters do either those war horse musicals or a recent Broadway hit, I can only speak for myself as a critic or just as an audience member, I do not want to see the same thing over and over again. This goes for both Equity and non-Equity. It baffles me when theaters stage a replica of the same, rehashed version we’ve seen a billions times before. You desperately wish they would bring to the stage boards a glistening new vision, with original, undiscovered subtext, energy and artistry to musicals and plays that have done before. Why throw something up on stage that is just a banal recreation of the same monotonous stuff we have sat through before?
However, what happens when a theater company goes so outside of the box and over the artistic line in their attempt to create a new vision of a much beloved piece that it leaves you frustrated, flabbergasted, and baffled by what you just saw? Tragically, that is exactly how I felt walking out of the Wyly Theatre after observing Director Liesl Tommy’s vision of Les Misérables.
Just a couple of hours before I attended press night I read an interview online about Ms. Tommy in which she revealed she had not ever seen Les Miz. My brain shouted loudly, “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” She went on to say she did not want to get influenced by any other director’s past work of the musical. I understand that, but jeez, you do want to at least know what it is, right? Three hours and thirty minutes after seeing her interpretation of the material you can definitely say, “Yep. She’s never seen this musical.”
Right off the bat, it is a major marketing error to use the famous Les Misérables logo on all of DTC’s posters, advertising and TV spots. Non-theater folk who see a familiar show logo, such as Beauty & the Beast’s rose, Wicked’s two girls, and Les Miz’s Cosette will automatically assume it’s the version they have seen before. Um. That’s a big, fat no at DTC. Because there has been so much ink written that DTC was producing a bold new production, then the logo should have reflected that as well, so no one is misled.
The playbill states the place and time is France 1815-1832. DTC’s website is also misleading in stating, “The Wyly Theatre has been transformed into early 19th century France.” Nothing on that stage even begins to hint that time period whatsoever.
As you walk into the theater there is John Coyne’s towering set upon a raked stage. Five big, grey metal towers with upper and lower openings are placed on all sides. Up center is the orchestra, placed on a massive catwalk between two of the towers. That center section design looks exactly like the center piece from the Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar that I saw in 2000 at the Ford Center. Above the orchestra are dozens of chairs just dangling above them (get it, empty chairs?). The floor is raked and cut in jagged edges. Everything is slathered in industrial grey paint. So the first question is, “Um … where in the HELL are we?” I honestly thought it was the prison from AMC’s The Walking Dead. So is this Les Miz set in the future? Or in today’s battled Iraq? Is this the stage version of The Hurt Locker? For the dramatic second act, when the barricade comes together, Coyne has designed a pile of bombed out materials to symbolize a make shift wall. It’s a small piece that loses all the emotion that the original and revival creation of the barricade symbolizes.
Because of the orchestration that is composed, the image of the barricade in whatever design it is should have the audience feel goose bumps go up their spines. That’s why there is this sweeping crescendo of orchestration composed for that visual. Coyne has a mini-wall fly in, thump on the floor that you can actually hear the Styrofoam it’s made of rustle when it hits the raked stage.
The set isn’t helped much by Colin K. Bills’ mediocre lighting design. Lighting is supposed to bring out and embellish the subtext and story. If designed correctly, it can literally make an audience cry. Bills, unfortunately, has allowed none of that. It’s basic colors or a couple of specials here and there. To use a ton of reds when the men sing “Red and Black”…um…really? Sure, there are some gobos that flicker onto the set, and lighting does shift, but nothing that we have not seen before. A couple of times, he does strike success, such as the blinding light shining onto the ghosts of the male students during “Empty Chairs And Empty Tables”.
Okay, so lighting and set doesn’t help us know where the story is set, what about costumes? Strike three. Jacob A. Climer’s costumes are all over the map. There are soldiers dressed like the Ninja warriors from those Resident Evil films. The soldiers are all in black shiny latex, tons of pads, & bullet proof vests. The helmets they wear make them look like Bain from Christopher Nolan’s Batman. Javert is dressed in a billowing leather coat and Nazi-esque high boots that resembles one of the generals from the 1997 film Starship Troopers. The male students are in current, modern outfits. They also wear these bright red berets that seem to look like the ones the Guardian Angels wear in New York. So we’re in New York? Are they part of the Occupy Wall Street protest? This idea goes out the door cause here come the villagers looking like immigrant farm workers. Later on, others are costumed in futuristic, gaudy costumes.
The principals are also costumed as though Climer went to a costume warehouse and just pulled anything he could find. Poor little Gavroche looks like either a mini version of the engineer from Miss Saigon or Linda Hunt from the film Year of Living Dangerously. To make matters worse the poor boy is wearing a wig that looks like it came from the sales bargain bin at Party City. Enjolras wears a brown leather jacket and tight tan pants tucked in his boots so that he resembles the lead actor from the film The Rocketeer.
All the male students are dressed in very clean, pristine modern costumes that you might see at Dillard’s at Northpark Mall. These “revolutionaries” pass pamphlets and some carry signs, both saying things about Occupy and save clean water. If that is the case, why are they dressed in clothes that look brand new and freshly washed? If their fight is for clean water, then didn’t they (or their maid) use that same precious water to wash them? That kinda defeats their cause. I may be trying way too hard in trying to make the connection of costume to the subtext. But I sat there struggling for something, anything to make me “get it”.
In Act II, after the bloody battle, the female ensemble appears on stage, but they are either Muslim women in burkas or Catholic women in mourning. I couldn’t make it out due to the ongoing confusion within this hodgepodge of costume design. For his last scene, Valjean is dressed in a brown, comfy sweater like the kind you see dads wear in every TV sitcom.
None of the design elements are in sync with each other, nor do they help in letting the audience know where we are or a solid, clear definition for taking the piece so far out of its original time period. The cast on stage would say France or Paris, or use French words here and there, but visually everything is modern or futuristic that did not resemble France at all.
Director Liesl Tommy ripped, shredded and stripped away the story and its characters from the Victor Hugo novel. The score remains intact, but it’s the time period and her interpretation of its score and lyrics that shows we are not in 1815 France. No French Revolution. Tommy has now placed the story either in current or future time. I don’t know. I couldn’t figure it out whatsoever. She has thrown in such current topical subjects as the VA scandal, foreclosures, evictions, and something about conserving water. In Hugo’s world we “got” what the students were fighting for. In this version, beats the living hell out of me. There is no clear definition, subtext, clarity or reason why it is set in a different era. If she is going to plant Les Misérables smack dead center in our current, topical world political climate, why isn’t this clearly defined?
If it is the Iraq War (as some physical elements and costumes lead us to believe), then why French students? Even the prayer beads that Valjean holds in his hands look Muslim. There is no hint of the current crisis with Iraq and the Islamist extremist group Isis. Or how about the current, bloody war between Russia and Ukraine? There was the recent killing of those three Israeli teens that could have served as the reason for their revolution in Tommy’s world of Les Miz. But as the playbill states, we are in 1815 France. The only current French news is that their soccer team was eliminated in the quarter finals of the World Cup and that bicycle competition.
If you are going to go all present-day political, here is one glaring omission. I saw at least three Latino performers within the cast, so why no hint of the current and very heated war on immigration? That’s a great cause for this modern group of male idealists/students to get behind and support. If it was used, I didn’t see it.
Look, I get it. Tommy was hell bent on taking on a completely new artistic approach to the material. As I stated at the beginning of this review, I LIVE for that kind of artistry and vision to well-known shows. But for the sweet love of Sondheim, it has to make sense! You can’t throw all these ideas that have no follow through and expect your audience to fill in the humongous pot holes that Tommy left in her vision. You have got to give some information to help the audience understand the journey and subtext. Talk about desperately needing GPS to find where on earth we are physically and emotionally in this version of Les Miz.
All evening long mistakes and bizarre gaffes kept popping up, and to be totally honest I could not tell if they were intentional or not. When Valjean releases Javert in Act II he shoots his gun in the air, you clearly hear him click the gun, two beats of dead silence, and then out of the blue a sound effect of a gunshot echoes in the theater. But then a scene later a Resident Evil soldier shoots Enjorlas and it is a very loud real gun shot that rings throughout the theater. Fantine sings of being so poor as she has to work to send all her money to the people who are caring for her child. But then you see on Fantine sparkling diamond stud earrings shimmer in the stage lights. In Act II Marius appears on stage after the bloody battle limping and clinging to a crutch, he sings “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables”. After the song he has a scene with Valjean who reveals his secret, Marius storms off with authority, but now the limp is completely gone and he leaves the crutch on the chair.
Then there is this “bold, new” vision and interpretation of the songs that goes way beyond comprehension. In “Lovely Ladies”, we know they are hookers just by the title of the song and then the lyrics. For DTC’s version, they are costumed in barely-there clothing, showing tons of skin and cleavage, ripped fish nets and towering, stripper heels. Within these girls is a male dressed up like a trashy meth-addict looking Tranny. Didn’t we already see this gimmick of putting a male in drag within the female ensemble before at DTC with the Kitt Katt girls in Cabaret a few seasons ago? The staging and direction for this number contains hardcore simulated sex. One hooker’s soldier has his pants down, revealing a thong as she slaps his bare butt. Another is orally pleasuring a customer, and so on. If you know the show, Fantine becomes a hooker as well. During her song she is roughed up by a rich customer. In Tommy’s version, she is savagely raped by the customer. The actress is singing away as the male customer rapes her. As if that is not jarring enough, Fantine gets up to join the line of hookers, and as she finishes the song, a soldier stands behind her, grabs hold of her hips and begins to thrust slowly, then faster and faster. Other johns are also doing various sex acts with the hookers as they finish the song.
I’m far from being a prude and am VERY,VERY open-minded. When it comes to nudity and sex on stage, if the material demands it, I’m totally fine with it. When I saw on Broadway the play Take Me Out, the men are totally naked, showering for long periods of time . Later on there is a graphic fight of two naked men in the showers. But because of what the play is about and the age old homophobic remark, “I don’t want no queer looking at me in the showers”, that graphic, violent fight of two men in the nude burned the subtext into the piece.
Spring Awakening. Another musical I saw on Broadway. There is major simulated sex in that musical, but again-the material demanded that kind of graphic realism. It added so many layers to the lyrics, book, acting, and subtext. Since then local productions of Spring Awakening have greatly watered this down, thereby severely destroying the emotional grip of the subtext.
When I saw these two shows in New York, the nudity and sex did not faze me in the least, because it made sense and had purpose.
So watching the graphic sex in Les Miz, I just watched in utter disbelief. Was this to push the envelope? Go for raw artistic freedom? Or was it used just to be daring? Two young children were sitting in the seats right in front of me, and there were several other small children in the house. When all this happened, the tiny boy gasped, and I could visibly see the mother’s horrified facial expression as she tried to cover both the boy and his sister’s eyes. They did not return for Act II.
The DTC website and the tiny posters at the theater state, “Like the recent film, this production contains suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.” I own the Oscar nominated film on DVD and saw it five times when it was originally released in theaters. I don’t remember this kind of in your face sex and ending in Toby Hopper’s film with Anne Hathaway getting it from behind as she sang “Lovely Ladies”.
Throughout the production, musical numbers contain direction, staging, design, and choreography that had me so confused and perplexed that, in all honesty, I wrote on my notes in big letters, ”WHAT THE….?!?!” That’s how incredibly exasperated and agitated I was with what I was observing.
For “One Day More” (Act I closing number), the company’s singing was outstanding. Big, glorious belting notes that sounded incredible. But the costumes! Some cast members wore costumes that made them look like they are doing “A New Argentina” from Evita, while others look like tribal members from the hippie musical Hair! You could tell Choreographer Christopher Windom was going all out in making sure the company does not do the infamous march typically seen for the song. There is no waving of a red flag either. I have no problem with that. In fact the new Broadway revival has a much more visually thrilling choreographed march than the original. Well here’s what Windom has done. The cast do some bizarre chant upstage while jogging in place, and then they fan out into semi-hip hop choreography you might see on So You Think You Can Dance. Windom’s choreography for the wedding scene in Act II is another patchwork number that distracted your attention to the soloists down stage.
One final example: The deaths of Enjorlas and Gavroche. As stated several times now, the score is left intact, including the orchestrations. After the bloody battle, there is always dead silence, and then slowly we hear an oboe play with strings underneath it. It begins softly. In the original, the turntable slowly turned and in the revival it was a wagon that turned. Either version turned quietly matching the pace of this orchestration of Valjean’s “Bring Him Home”. Then the music soars into a booming crescendo when the turntable/wagon turns all the way to reveal Enjorlas’s body on top of the barricade/on a wagon of dead bodies, with the little boy on the ground amid the dead bodies/ in Enjorlas’s arms, also dead. Either version of this visual and the swelling of music has always made me cry. It grips your heart.
Tommy has nothing staged whatsoever to match this piece of orchestration. After the silence, we hear crackling noises coming from the Resident Evil soldiers’ radios. You can hear voices giving orders or talking back and forth. I will say I LOVED that sound effect. It was bone chilling. But the music plays and nothing happens, even as the music crescendos, nothing. The soldiers pick up the guns that litter the stage as Javert walks among the bodies. No lighting change, no staging, nada to match this piece of music that usually has me in a sea of tears in the darkness. Instead I just sighed in disappointment. Now I’m not saying Tommy had to do the exact staging from the original or the revival, but it is a lost opportunity to generate heartbreaking emotion with staging and direction of some sort to match the score that pours out from the orchestra.
Thank god that the orchestra sounds sublime, and with a great sigh of relief, gives the music lush, opulent life. However, having said that, throughout the reviewed performance, several principals and soloists got behind or ahead of the music. The tempos on several of the songs seem to sound as they were pushed to go faster. You could literally hear principals jump ahead, get behind, and even stop themselves to listen to the orchestra to see where they were in the music. Only Watts (Javert) and Leung (Adult Cosette) did not have that problem.
As for the performances, just like everything else in “This modern, fresh and bold production”, it is a mixed bag of talent.
Nehal Joshi portrays our hero Jean Valjean. At the top of the show, the chain gang march in rhythm to make the chains clatter (it is here we first hear the music’s tempos have been sped up). These prisoners are dressed like extras from TV’s Orange is the New Black jumpsuits. Joshi is the last one in the line and is freed by Javert. When Joshi goes into his first solo, he begins with this huge explosion of emotion. But because he flies out of the gate so dramatically and intensely, he has nowhere to go for the rest of the night. He then physically begins to slap himself on his forehead, huffs and makes all these strange noises, and making his body gyrate like he’s having a seizure. I completely understand Valjean’s anger, but Joshi is just too much. The subtext within Valjean needs to build (he’s got three hours of ground to cover!). But instead Joshi flings it onto the audience the second he is alone on stage. It doesn’t help that Joshi has major vocal issues all throughout the performance. In one solo he clearly cannot hit the high tenor notes required (his voice cracked in one big song in Act I). At times, his voice soars and he belts beautifully, but then at other times, he couldn’t reach the notes or sustain them.
Any actor who portrays Valjean knows that no matter what goes right or wrong, it will be the song “Bring Him Home” that will make or break that performance. Joshi starts off this famous solo with powerful notes and a solid belt. But towards the end of the song he starts to lose the power. That last note is the major, money note. It is a high falsetto tenor note sustained for endless measures as it floats into the audience. I’ve seen past Valjeans cut off right along with the orchestra or even still sing that final note past the cut off. Joshi, unfortunately, cannot sustain the note, cutting it in half. This solo usually receives a prolonged, never-ending wave of applause, whistles, and wild cheers from the audience. On press night, it did not happen for Joshi.
For his final scenes, he dramatizes that he is ill and dying with these loud coughs, gasping and wheezing that was just too much. This also caused him not to give the music the vocal strength it demands. Again, he is just too intense, not allowing the subtext to ebb from his craft. Like the production itself, there will be people who will love his performance and others who will not.
Edward Watts, as Javert, delivers the most powerful, star-making performance of the evening. Watts is a tall, handsome man who looks a lot like TV star Eric Dane. So if you want to see a McSteamy Javert, he’s on the DTC stage right now! The moment Watts steps into the light, his stage presence hits you like a blazing meteor. Unlike many of the other principals, Watts has an iron clad grasp on his character’s subtext, and full emotional comprehension of the lyrics. He allows the conflict between him and Valjean to build slowly throughout the musical. Watts possesses a gorgeous singing voice, and he, quite frankly, delivers the best singing of the entire production. His version of “Stars” is phenomenal. You can clearly feel the audience straighten in unison in their seats to make certain not to lose a moment of Watts’ vocal brilliance. When he belted that big final note and sustains it to the very end, he was the first principal to receive thunderous loud cheers and applause. Watts’ work in this version of Les Misérables is stunning & the saving grace of this production.
Elizabeth Judd plays Eponine, Allison Blackwell plays Fantine, and both do serviceable work in their roles. But like others within the principals, both ladies do not peel back the subtext of their characterizations or the lyrics. Both have two songs every musical theater actress has in their audition repertoire - Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” and Eponine’s “On My Own”. Both actresses have decent soprano voices, but on press night both did not sustain the notes to the very end. Also, both struggle to keep their vibratos in control. It is so disheartening to hear two of the most familiar songs from the score sung with so-so results.
Dorcas Leung does not have that problem whatsoever as the adult Cosette. Leung is a stunning beauty. From her throat pours an exquisite soprano voice. This role has always been the “hit or miss” performance in every production of Les Misérables I have seen. The role calls for an operatic soprano voice that has to glide effortlessly into a higher register within the music. I have heard past Cosettes crack on those notes, pull back on them, or go sharp. Leung has none of those issues. Plus, she has a vibrato that sticks to those notes like glue so that not a single note goes off key. While this is not her fault whatsoever, it is odd that Cosette never changes costumes. She is stuck in one costume until the very end. Also (again not her fault), in the reviewed performance, the younger Cosette was clearly Caucasian with brown hair. Leung has black hair and not Caucasian. So it took some time to connect the dots due to the physical differences in both. Nonetheless, Leung delivers a loving, beautifully sung performance.
Steven Michael Walters portrays the money hungry, pick pocket-stealing innkeeper, Thenardier. He is costumed in a white suit and a tad too tight vest, causing his flesh to stick out for comedic reasons. He wears a massive dreadlock wig and dark eyeliner. For the reviewed performance, Walters got stuck with the body mic from hell, it continually kept going on or off all evening long. Walters has severe diction problems and kept jumping ahead of the music. That role has some meaty laugh- filled lyrics but Walters’s mushy diction swallowed them up. But he did have some terrific comedic moments within his characterization.
It would be up to Christia Mantzke, as Madame Thenardier, to give the scene-stealing performance that achieves the best and loudest laughs of the night. Now here Climer gets the costuming right. Mantzke is dressed in skin tight skirts, heels so high she almost trips (worn with socks for added laughs), and a tight bustier that pushes the “girls” so up as to pop out at any moment. Adding a massive rat’s nest red wig, harsh, blue eye shadow and it all assists her performance that has the audience rolling in the aisles. I don’t know if those in the upper levels heard her ad-libs, but my god, were they hysterical. Mantzke develops a complete, fleshed out, original creation of this poor woman married to man who doesn’t have much “down there”. Mantzke dissects her lyrics to wring out the best laughs she can create. And she does, over and over again! She changes her voice within her solos to bring new laughs that have never been there in other productions. Wait till you see what she wears in the second act - I died laughing! Ms. Mantzke is the comedic star of DTC’s Les Miz.
Major kudos must be awarded to the ensemble. As a collective group they sang with robust volume, tight harmonies, and felt the emotion within this beloved score. Throughout the performance I could see them always in the moment and staying in full character. You could however see some of the uneasiness and looking very uncomfortable from the female members in “Lovely Ladies”. I don’t blame them at all. This was a superior company that made up the Les Miz chorus.
I feel strongly that as more theater people start attending Dallas Theater Center’s production of Les Misérables there will be a lot of discussion about it, both pro and con. Some might find it revolutionary, bold, and history making and the creation of something they have never seen before. Others may hate it and find it a discombobulated train wreck striving way too damn hard for artistic originality.
At intermission, two gentlemen were in front of me in the line. One turns to his friend and says, “I hate that my wife drags me to this stuff. We saw this at the Winspear and I really liked it. She told me it was the same show. I think she tricked me. I fell asleep a couple of times.” His friend replied, “Are you kidding me? This is incredible! I’ve never seen it done like this and I am loving every single minute of it. You are dead wrong!”
Even Joe Q. Public is divided in their opinions of this production. I’m sure so will the hardcore theater crowd and patrons who see a show once a year. You will have to decide on your own what you thought of it.
Dallas Theater Center
Dee and Charles Wyly Theatre
2400 Flora Street, Dallas, 75201
Plays through August 17th and is recommended for ages 13 and above. This production contains suggestive and sexual material, violence and thematic elements.
Tuesday–Thursday and Sunday at 7:30 pm, Friday–Saturday at 8:00 pm, and Saturday– Sunday matinee at 2:00 pm.
Ticket prices run from $15.00-$215.00. Be advised that prices are subject to change.
For information and to purchase tickets, go to www.DallasTheaterCenter.org or call the AT&T Performing Arts Center box office at 214-880-0202.