"Les Miserables," back in Washington for a third engagement, has lost none of its popular appeal. If anything, booking the show into the National Theatre, where it is to play through Sept. 8, has enhanced its ability to bowl over an audience.

The Alain Boublil/Claude-Michel Schoenberg musical had its pre-Broadway tryout in 1986 at the Kennedy Center Opera House and paid a return visit there two years ago. A show of such scope, the reasoning went, required vast quarters. But it didn't hurt at all that the Opera House has about 600 more seats than the National. When tickets are going for up to $50, that can amount to a tidy fortune.

The production at the National, which opened last night, retains all the dimensions of the original version, and impressive they are (Inspector Javert's suicidal plunge from a bridge into the swirling waters of the Seine has to be one of the more amazing illusions devised for the stage in the past decade). The difference has to do with the relative intimacy of the National.

In these surroundings, both ends of the theatrical spectrum benefit. What's big about "Les Miserables" seems even bigger, while the quieter, more personal moments, no longer lost in faraway pools of light, gain in poignancy and power. Just as the right frame brings out the strengths in a canvas, the right theater can noticeably color a show.

The National cast is a strong one. J. Mark McVey heads it as Jean Valjean, and he need have no fears about following in the Tony-winning footsteps of Colm Wilkinson. Crouched at the footlights, head held high as he implores God to "Bring Him Home," McVey delivers an exquisite rendition of what may be the musical's loveliest song. What's more, you can read the anguish in his brow and the fervor in his eyes, as you couldn't when Wilkinson sang the number in the Opera House.

In the course of adapting Victor Hugo's 1,200-page novel for the stage, the creators of "Les Miserables" sacrificed much of the psychological complexity that the French author so luxuriated in. (In the novel, Valjean can wrestle with his conscience for 75 pages and keep you on tenterhooks.) The musical is far more schematic about matters, and its characters are painted largely in black and white.

Actors can flesh out those characters, of course, and do. But again, that's where the National lends a helping hand. The fleshing out is more easily perceived and more immediately felt when the performers are not battling great distances as well.

"Les Miserables" covers 17 years in the life of the heroic Valjean, whose destiny takes him from a brutal prison yard to the portals of Heaven. Along the way lie brawling marketplaces, cutthroat country inns, teeming city streets and a forbidding barricade raised in a Parisian cul-de-sac by rebellious students hoping to reignite the embers of the French Revolution. There are no fewer than seven major characters whose rising and falling destinies entwine with the hero's over the years.

Once upon a time, the multi-generational saga was fodder for the cinema, although more recently it seems to have cropped up primarily on television in the guise of the miniseries. With their staging of "Les Miserables," which builds on the innovations they brought to "The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby," directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn have helped restore the epic form to the theater.

That, it seems to me, has been the chief accomplishment of the so-called "British musical" that has dominated Broadway in recent seasons. Whatever their respective virtues, such musicals as "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Starlight Express" and "Les Miserables" refuse to acknowledge that certain areas are off limits.

They soar up to Paradise, plunge into dank sewers, scurry over rooftops, explore subterranean kingdoms and even skate right off the stage and into the laps of the spectators. In the process, spectacle has once again acquired a good name and melodrama has been exonerated as the crowd-pleasing form it is.

In that respect, "Les Miserables" has a splendid pair of grasping thieves (Rosalyn Rahn and Drew Eshelman), a repentant prostitute (Susan Dawn Carson) and as nasty a police inspector (Robert DuSold) as ever twirled a mustache on a widow's doorstep. It has a gallant swain (Peter Gunther), the dewy-fresh maiden he loves (Kimberly Behlmann) and the scruffy street lass he doesn't (Susan Tilson). It has throngs of peasants, an army of idealistic students and a couple of wide-eyed waifs getting underfoot.

All of them are caught up in the convulsions of history, which in Hugo's view will lead mankind out of the darkness and into the light of a new age. There are no small emotions in this universe, no tentative gestures. Pride, greed, compassion, pity and love are boldly displayed -- like banners waved triumphantly on high. Well, as the gentleman said, extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.

And you can't deny it packs the hall.

Les Miserables, by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schoenberg; music, Claude-Michel Schoenberg; lyrics, Herbert Kretzmer; directed and adapted by John Caird and Trevor Nunn. Designed by John Napier; lighting, David Hersey; costumes, Andreane Neofitou. With J. Mark McVey, Robert DuSold, Susan Dawn Carson, Rosalyn Rahn, Drew Eshelman, Pete Herber, Peter Gunther, Kimberly Behlmann. At the National Theatre through Sept. 8.