LES MISERABLES --

(National Theatre, through Sept. 8)

Back in Washington for a third engagement, this sweeping musical, taken from Victor Hugo's enduring novel, has lost none of its popular appeal. If anything, the production is better than ever. The difference is the National Theatre, a far more intimate facility than the Opera House, where the show played the two previous times. What's big about "Les Miz" seems even bigger, while the quiet, personal moments, no longer lost in faraway pools of light, gain in power and poignancy. Mark J. McVey heads an excellent cast as Jean Valjean, whose destiny takes him from a brutal prison yard to the portals of heaven. Along the way lie teeming marketplaces, cutthroat country inns, brawling city streets and a forbidding barricade raised in a Parisian cul de sac by students hoping to reignite the embers of the French revolution. The multi-generational saga has long been fodder for the cinema and, more recently, the television miniseries. Directors John Caird and Trevor Nunn, aided by designer John Napier, have brought the epic form back to the theater in glory. Spectacle is no longer a dirty word and melodrama is exonerated as the crowd-pleasing form it is.

SHEILA'S DAY --

(Ford's Theatre, through Aug. 5)

Performed by a cast of 11 black actresses -- American and South African -- "Sheila's Day" is a celebration in song, story and dance of the resilience and strength of the female spirit. In particular, playwright Duma Ndlovu focuses on two women, an Alabama maid and a Zulu schoolteacher, and their attempts to make their way through societies beset with racism. As the maid who accidentally finds herself present at key incidents in the civil rights struggle, Ebony Jo-Ann recounts her adventures with considerable humor. The plaintive Letta Mbulu plays the Zulu woman, whose simple desire to be a teacher is constantly frustrated by the strictures of apartheid. The ensemble takes all the other roles -- singing and dancing with fervor. Even as it is chronicling the ravages of racism, "Sheila's Day" is also working to justify its final uplifting moment, when the cast members gather together in a collective embrace that leaves no room for hate.