BWW Review: Reimagined LES MISERABLES Asian/International Tour
By Vince Vicentuan
Manila, Philippines--LES MISERABLES stirred a musical maelstrom in Manila last Wednesday (March 16) and is poised to win audiences over via a memorable theatrical experience. At the heart of its seamless and dynamic storytelling beats a conscience that rouses, provokes, mangles, and transforms souls: a singular man's search for acceptance and meaning in a fractured and unforgiving 19th century France. This Cameron Mackintosh new production of Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil's legendary and popular musical takes center stage again, this time against the canvases of Victor Hugo's lesser known paintings--never before seen in the original London's West End and Broadway productions--providing a perfect complement to the production's memorable music and breath-taking sets of that iconic turning-barricade-flying-helicopter-falling-chandelier stature Mackintosh productions are known for.
Plot and Theme
No, this "bread" does not multiply itself a hundred times over...
More than 2,000 years ago, Jesus Christ's bread fed the hungry, but Jean Valjean's stolen loaf makes a righteous man a "slave of the law" for 19 years. While all those who took part in the miraculous meal dispersed with a message of hope in their hearts, Valjean's petty crime transforms him into a hardened man with nary an iota of virtue, much more a message to spare with the hungry and dying poor of the French society.
...until that singular act of kindness transforms him overnight...
This premise serves as Hugo's aperture to launch his exposition of characters that comprises his novel--an attempt at a complicated yet thorough commentary of a society when morality and law were the ultimate measures of man's humanity. This premise then becomes the delicate thread of Hugo's story which, thankfully, does not snap in its musical retelling. The musical, now one-hour shorter, successfully captures the theme in vivid details with its music spilling out conflicts upon conflicts in a steady, fast-paced, rising action.
...and sends out a tweet into the social media world: To love another person is to see the face of God.
Hate and love are the nerves of today's social media, with the former enjoying the upper hand among the Internet trolls. Hugo's microcosm is no different, but his highlights the transformative value of love over its nemesis--hate--and it is this conscience that drives the musical right into the audience's heart. The reimagined version attempts to connect with the younger audiences through nuances both explicit and subtle: it would have been kind of weird having young Cosette sing that "nobody shouts or talks too loud" line to today's social media-empowered generation, no matter how unintentional it may have been. Furthermore, the case of the boy Gavroche, who in his childhood innocence sees himself as an important part and voice of the revolution, a common mindset among today's youth who have seen themselves involved in issues and initiatives political and environmental:
And little people know
When little people fight
We may look easy pickings
But we've got some bite.
Cast and Ensemble
It was logical and necessary to assemble actors mostly from the Australian production since many of their co-actors had not been in this new version. To prepare for the Manila opening, the team had to arrive a month ahead of its premiere to acclimatize the London cast to the changes. True enough, the whole team delivered a tour de force, most notable of which I feel compelled to write about, no matter how briefly, for justice's sake.
Simon Gleeson (Australia) leads the cast in a gut-wrenching and emotion-wrangling performance as Jean Valjean whose raw emotional and vocal power sends audiences into theatrical and spiritual transcendence. He delivers with unabashed pathos that even his whispered notes are as powerful. His ultimate highs come most notably in "Bring Him Home" amidst the corpses of the perished youth.
Earl Carpenter (UK) as Inspector Javert plays the role by the book with its characteristic permafrost persona so hard and so cold that when it breaks by the bank of the River Seine, his personal denouement detonates an emotional nuclear bomb. Watch for the suicide scene--it sends hearts palpitating no end.
Rachelle Ann Go (UK) as Fantine displays the vocal and emotional range for such an age reminiscent of what we saw in her mentor-friend Lea Salonga when she debuted in "Miss Saigon" as Kim on the London stage. One minor observation, however, is this: Ms. Go's too careful belting of those major notes seems to prevent her from realizing a raw and full emotional delivery. Nevertheless, her solo performance of the iconic "I Dreamed a Dream" is one to bookmark and her "Lovely Ladies" and death scene make for one special homecoming du jour.
Cameron Blakely's (UK) Monsieur Thenardier has never been so real and multi-dimensional despite its stockishness. Thanks to Mr. Blakely, you will reel in laughter and spit in scorn at the same time. His dame, played by Helen Walsh (UK), provides Mr. Blakely an equally conniving half; however, her antics are outshone by Monsieur Thenardier's cunning most of the time.
He may come diminutive in physical form, but Callum Hobson's (Australia) Gavroche steals the thunder in the barricade scenes with his pure tones and perfect pitch. His character in this production tries to connect with today's millennials, although rather subtly, via that "tiny gesture" in his confrontation with the spy Javert. Watch his hand deliver the message to the "snake in the grass." Never ever wink to catch it.
Another juvenile, Chloe Delos Santos (Australia), who plays the young Cosette, gives her beautiful voice to today's abused children, and for her part, plays the role so well no matter how briefly.
Coming off promisingly are Paul Wilkins (UK), who lends his good juvenile looks to Marius as a reluctant revolutionist and a perennial lover; Kerrie Anne Greenland (Australia) whose nuances allow you to see beyond the surface of the street urchin Eponine; Emily Langridge (Australia) as Cosette, lovely and charming as she should be, and Chris Durling (Australia), whose Enjolras is a lethal combination of charm and feistiness, enough to steal the spotlight from Marius.
Equally, credit must go to the repertory actors who tediously and expertly weave in and out of a million costumes and characters to provide the show a veritable ensemble presence most especially in "Master of the House," "One Day More," and "Do You Hear the People Sing?"
The Schonberg-Boublil Score
The indomitable duo of Mr. Boublil and Mr. Schonberg (who made the Manila premiere more special with his presence together with Mr. Mackintosh himself), with the fortunate addition of Herbert Kretzmer (English lyrics), obviously has created a legendary score that has surpassed time, generation, and yes, harsh critics. Their work, as this production shows, is still much of a job in progress, allowing innovation to shape it, thus making it more universally appealing in relevance and scope. Surely, the success of this musical has tramped on critics of 30 years ago when it opened in London, making "Les Mis" (as fondly called by fans) one of the longest-running musicals (seen by over 70 million) and one of the most financially successful in the world. But the essence of the duo's work is best felt in Valjean's summary line, "To love another person is to see the face of God," which undoubtedly inducts it into the Musicals-with-Conscience Hall of Fame.
Sets, Lighting, and Orchestra
The original version of LES MISERABLES was staged in a black box setting sans the backdrops, leaving most of the scenarios to the audience's imagination. The rotating barricade soon became a symbol of creative genius, and it surely makes its presence felt here. Against the backdrop of Hugo's paintings, the sets move, join, part, and fly in smooth segues. The sewer scene, for example, is quite a three-dimensional treat and Javert's demise is a spectacle to behold. It would be an injustice not to mention Paule Constable, Simon Sheriff, and Richard Pacholski's superb lighting done so tastefully, which does not overwhelm or compromise believability. The orchestra conducted by Laura Tipoki, on the other hand, perfectly complements everything there is and happening onstage.
LES MISERABLES is one triumphant night of musical revolution at The Theatre at Solaire.
Mr. Mackintosh, Executive Producer Michael Cassel, and Concertus Manila, together with Smart Infinity, present the reimagined production of LES MISERABLES; the show plays The Theatre at Solaire, Solaire Resort and Casino, Paranaque City, until Sunday, April 24. Tickets are available at (632) 891-9999 or visit TicketWorld.com.ph.
Vince Vicentuan is a graduate student at the Ateneo de Manila University Loyola Schools (MA in Educational Administration) and the Humanities and Social Sciences academic coordinator of FEU High School in Manila. A theater artist, he had worked as the theater manager of Assumpta Theater-CCP of the East in Assumption Antipolo, and written and directed his own musicals such as "Sulyap-Lahi," "The Wonder Bookshop" 1 and 2, and "Whose Garden is This? " among others. He appeared in the Philippine productions of "Oliver!," "Chess the Musical," "A Midsummer-Night's Dream," "The Magic Staff," "Dalagang Bukid," and "Bakhita the Musical," among others. As a teacher of English and Literature, in most of his reviews, he writes for students who he believes must be educated in theater appreciation and creative writing.