What if I told you that in a 280-seat black box theater in Arlington, Va., you can find a production of Les Miz that’s more stirring, inventive, and genuinely moving than the original ever was? I swear on my stack of 14 New York and national-tour Playbills. As director Eric Schaeffer proves, Boublil-Schönberg’s musical of revolution and redemption isn’t all about the turntable. You won’t even miss it.
Not that the Signature Theatre production is some rinky-dink, recession-era staging. The cast of 28 is only a few bodies shy of the Broadway company count; the 14-member orchestra is smaller, to be sure, but still sounds sprightly and lush. What Schaeffer has eliminated, essentially, are most of the bit parts — the rowdy revelers at the inn where ex-con Valjean (Greg Stone) can’t get a room, the women who serve him dinner before he robs the Bishop (Aaron Reeder) blind, the nurses who fuss about as Fantine (Tracy Lynn Olivera) lays dying. Gone, for example, is the courtroom setting where Valjean reveals his true identity to his tormentor Javert (Tom Zemon); instead of bursting in front of a gavel-banging judge, a falsely accused Valjean doppelgänger, and his wildly sobbing family, Valjean delivers his chest-baring confession (”Who am I? 2-4-6-0-1!”) straight into Javert’s cold, calculating eyes.
The entire show — starkly lit, colored with an alluringly Goth palette — feels less manufactured, more genuine, rougher around the edges. When Fantine sells her hair, it gets chopped off right there. So dramatic. (The Broadway Fantines always scurried off stage to shed their luxurious locks, which they were presumably hiding under those ratty pixie wigs they were forced to wear.) The student revolutionaries don’t skip around waving massive red flags; rather, they tie scraps of fabric to their wrists or around their necks. All furrowed brow and black leather, Zemon — a Les Miz vet who’s appeared in numerous roles, including Javert — has taken his police inspector from fine to fantastic.
One cut I will quibble over: the absence of the silver candlesticks — so omnipresent in Victor Hugo’s original novel — in the show’s final scene. Then again, you might not even notice they’re missing, with all the tears that will surely be welling up. A-
(Tickets: signature-theatre.org, or 703-573-7328)