Review: LES MISERABLES at Broadway Dallas

There’s no other way to say it: Les Misérables is still as powerful and moving of an experience today as it was 36 years ago.

By: Feb. 22, 2024
Review: LES MISERABLES at Broadway Dallas
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The era of the seemingly endless tour brought Les Misérables back to DFW during Christmas.  I hadn’t seen it on stage in about a decade (let’s not talk about seeing it on film), so it seemed to be an appropriate time to revisit it. 

For those who may be unfamiliar, Jean Valjean was justly jailed for theft (that he was stealing bread to feed his sister’s child doesn’t change the fact that he stole someone else’s property).  After serving many years (mostly for trying to escape), he is granted parole, only to find that he’s unwelcome everywhere he goes.  Taken in by a bishop, he steals some low value silver, but is caught.  The bishop, however, instead of returning him to prison, gives him much finer silver, telling him to use it to start a new life, which Valjean does.  What remains is his attempt to lead an honorable life, while raising the orphaned daughter of a former employee he hadn’t quite looked out for, and trying to avoid being found by the relentless policeman, Javert.  Much of the play is set against the backdrop of the failed 1832 Paris uprising.

As expected, the cast was strong – each of them sang well, some beautifully – and most of the production values were excellent.  Instead of the revolving stage I remember from 1987, set pieces rolled efficiently in and out, while video effects were used to portray moving locations.  But I was overcome by the darkness of the production – not the subject matter, which, granted, isn’t, for the most part, the happiest of stories, but the actual lighting. 

There was only the dimmest of lighting for the stage and the ensemble.  Featured singers had spotlights of varying intensity focused on them, but it was as if they had forgotten to pack the footlights, as well as the floods.  Clearly that wasn’t the case: there was a conscience decision made to keep the stage as dark as possible.  My question, is why?

As I’ve said, Les Mis is a dark play.  Yes, it’s about redemption, but it goes through a lot of dark places (both metaphorically and literally) to get there.  Much of the play takes place at night, and in poorly lit places (the slums, the woods outside a crummy inn, a barricade, the sewers beneath Paris), so maybe this decision was based on creating ambiance, but I don’t think it was particularly successful.  What it did serve to do, sadly, was to obscure the actors, particularly the ensemble.  It’s hard enough to get a good read on the performers in a room as large as the Music Hall, but this made it almost impossible.  During Lovely Ladies, for example, there was no way, from my vantage point, to determine who was singing which line.  It also limited the impact of the actors’ choices: their movements, mannerisms, facial expressions.  Unless there was a spot light directly on them, each seemed very out-of-focus.

Perhaps, because the play is entirely sung, this was done to allow us to focus more directly on the music and the lyrics.  It’s certainly what I did.  The orchestra, a blend of five travelling musicians (along with a conductor/music director) and nine locals, was excellent.  I noticed a fair number of lyrical changes from the soundtrack I’ve been listening to all my life (the 2 CD Original Broadway Recording); I expected the additional bits it hadn’t included (I never did get the full 3 CD version), but various lines had apparently been cut or rewritten over the years.  As usual, I presume the cuts were to keep the very long play from being even longer, but I can’t say that any of rewrites improved the lyrics (and without a recording, I’m not able to properly analyze them).  I don’t believe they were made to soften the play, as it still contained all of the horrible epithets hurled at Fantine, but I’m sure there was a reason for each.

Not being able to focus on the performers also left me with time to contemplate some of the odder factors of the play’s book: the sheer improbability (in a city as large as Paris, not to mention a country as large as France) of Valjean repeatedly running into people from his past; the meaninglessness of the blackmail threat (having your father be known for rescuing someone from the battle doesn’t usually hurt a daughter’s reputation); the identity of the wedding guests, when Cosette had been kept away from all human company and all of Marius’s (the first man of quality her own age she’s met, whom she instantly falls in love with – shades of The Tempest, anyone?) friends had just been slaughtered at the barricade (oops, spoiler alert); how Javert could have arrested someone else as Valjean, when we know that convicts had their prison numbers branded onto their chests; and most glaringly, how a man with Valjean’s superhuman strength could have ever found himself, way back when, so destitute that he was stealing bread for children (at worst, with his physical prowess, he could have rented himself out as a human ox, plowing fields by the acre; or performed the work of a half dozen porters or stevedores).  It’s been so long since I’ve read the original novel, I can’t recall if Hugo addressed any of these points – suggesting it’s time for me to reread the classic (hopefully with a more welcoming translation than the one I had pulled off my parents’ shelf all those years ago).

Regardless of these questions, I couldn’t help but once again be struck by the motifs in the music (which, while repeated, don’t feel repetitive), the humanity and compassion of the bishop (whom I think is the most noble character in the play), the sheer joy of the anthems, and the brilliance of the toast, “here’s to the pretty girls who went to our heads / here’s to the witty girls who went to our beds” (it took a few years for me to understand that one – originally thinking they had mis-paired the two; they hadn’t).

In recompense for bringing me to see this play in 1987, I brought my mother to this performance.  I mention this not so that you’ll know what a great son I am, but because she availed herself of Broadway Dallas’s enhanced sound equipment, which she adored.  Listening to the show with normal hearing aids cannot match the quality, clarity, and volume control available to the system (which I assume comes straight from the soundboard).  I almost wish I had requested one, too. 

I had forgotten how steep the aisleways are; I’ve been on double black diamond ski trails with more forgiving inclines.  As such, when not in your seat, please keep an eye uphill for out-of-control walkers and wheelchairs.  It’s such a good thing that no one is mounting a production of Starlight Express (I could end the sentence there, I know), as I’m sure they’d want to use the full theater, leading, no doubt, to numerous injuries as the skaters shoosh boom their way down the slope.

Finally, on a personal note: this review is unconscionably tardy, for which there is no excuse (this is why it took me so long to graduate college – you’d have thought I’d be past that by now, and yet, here we are).  While I fully expect Broadway Dallas to never again invite me over, I do hope they don’t hold my failings against us.

Les Misérables played in late December.  Broadway Dallas at The Music Hall at Fair Park is currently hosting the national tour of Beetlejuice: The Musical (presumably without Congresswoman Lauren Boebert in the audience), through March 3, followed by Girl from the North Country, from April 9 through April 21.

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