I arrived at The Theatre at Solaire four hours before the show was scheduled to begin. A few people I know asked me if I came early to avoid the traffic, and while that is a good reason, it’s not the primary reason. In truth, I just had to be there as soon as possible, because I could not wait any longer. After hours of waiting (on top of the months of anticipation leading up to the show’s arrival in Manila), we were allowed to enter the theater. I walked slowly towards the stage, taking in the energy running throughout the theater. I reached my seat but first peeked into the orchestra pit to glance at the musicians warming up their instruments. When I finally sat down, I marveled at the set, especially admiring the intricate debris situated to my left. The centre of the stage was a painting of the Parisian skyline adorned with Victor Hugo’s signature. It was only a matter of minutes before I was once again immersed in another captivating and almost religious experience.
It may come as a surprise to some that this show was poorly reviewed by critics when it first opened in London over thirty years ago. However, with countless awards, numerous international productions, a fan following like no other, and now, even resounding praise from critics, Cameron Mackintosh’s Les Misérables (or Les Mis, as its fans, the Mizzies, lovingly call it) has proven to be timeless, relevant, and engaging. Based on Victor Hugo’s novel, with a book written by Alain Boublil, music by Claude-Michel Schönberg, and an English libretto by Herbert Kretzmer, the show has sparked innumerable adaptations and interpretations over the course of its three-decade-long lifespan, which serves as a true testament to what makes Les Misérables such an enduring show. After years of waiting and ever-growing clamour from Filipino fans, the musical has finally landed on our shores with a splendid new production and a powerful cast.
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Changes Made in the Production
Massive changes were made from the original production, which has been running in London for over thirty years now. This re-imagined production features set design by Matt Kinley, lighting by Paule Constable, sound design by Mick Potter, and projections realized by 59 Productions. Created specially for the show’s 25th anniversary, this production features incredible visuals and embraces technology wonderfully; further proof that although theater is an ancient art form, it is capable of evolving and adapting to the times. Absent from this production is the turntable from the original show, but the show works just as well without it, as this production’s sets and props are more engaging and authentic. The first thing we see is the backdrop, which is one of many paintings made by the source material’s author, Victor Hugo. It’s a little know fact that the writer of Les Misérables was a very talented painter as well. Throughout the show, many of Hugo’s paintings are projected onto the back of the stage, adding a layer of color that contrasts wonderfully with the set’s earthy tones. The backdrops were animated in some scenes, including the waves in the Prologue and chimney smoke in I Dreamed A Dream. The decision to make the animation minimal was a good one, as they add to the movement to the set, without taking focus away from the actors. One scene in particular benefits most from the use of these projected backdrops: The Sewers. When Valjean drags an unconscious Marius down into the sewers to escape the surrounding army, the projection changes from the street into the sewers, and a vulgar Thénardier emerges from a tunnel. Short after this happens, Valjean carries Marius through the labyrinthine tunnels, and the scene is a sight to behold. The projections shift from one tunnel to another, creating the illusion that Valjean is transporting Marius over a great distance. The details in the show are not only found in the props and little nuances in the music, but in the acting as well. It’s the little murmurs from the ensemble that create more realistic scenes, even when their individual statements get muddled in all of the ruckus if you’re not listening closely. The effort that is put into this production, regardless of whether or not the average audience member will notice, is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Not much has to be said about Boublil and Schönberg’s music, because the melodies speak for themselves. The orchestra was composed of both Filipino and foreign musicians, all led by conductor Laura Tipoki. At the sitzprobe, Tipoki conducted with such passion, and it was truly an exciting thing to witness. While the orchestra is smaller than its original counterpart in London, they are just as rich and full-bodied. From heavy percussion on the drums to airy notes from an oboe, Les Misérables score and orchestrations are like no other.
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Stellar International Cast
I find that Manila has always been very lucky, as we’ve had great casts in all of the international musicals that have landed on our shores. In previous productions, all of the actors comprising a show’s Australian company would come to Manila as well. This time however, we have actors from productions around the globe, and I could not have asked for a better cast. Australian actor Simon Gleeson (Love Never Dies) plays Jean Valjean, West End star Earl Carpenter (The Phantom of the Opera) plays Inspector Javert, our very own Rachelle Ann Go (Miss Saigon) plays Fantine. Gleeson comes from the Australian touring cast, along with Emily Langridge as Cosette, Kerrie Anne Greenland as Eponine, and Chris Durling as Enjolras. Go was plucked straight from the West End cast – which she will return to after the Manila run – along with Cameron Blakely as Thénardier, Helen Walsh as Madame Thénardier, and Paul Wilkins as Marius. Carpenter comes from the Broadway production, after replacing Will Swenson late last year. The cast also has one other Filipino member, in the form of Chloe De Los Santos, who plays Little Cosette.
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The ensemble cast is massively talented as well, and because of the acting and belting throughout the show, they are easily the most talented ensemble I have ever witnessed. The amount of energy poured into each little action and statement, most of which goes unnoticed by many, shows that these actors truly take their performances further than most.
Earl Carpenter debuted this production’s Javert in 2010, and his run with the Asian Tour company marks an impressive fourth reprisal of Javert in the production, in addition to performing the role in the West End. Late last year, Carpenter joined the Broadway production but was unfortunately injured, forcing him to take a break from the show to heal. Thankfully, he regained his strength and is joining the Asian Tour in time for its Manila run. Carpenter performed Stars with as much fervour as ever, and any signs of an injury were completely absent as the British actor roamed about the stage with great zeal. In addition to Stars, Carpenter’s take on Javert’s Soliloquy was undoubtedly the most riveting part of the show. From the beginning of the Prologue up to the second Confrontation, Carpenter’s Javert is truly a fanatic. Each time he faces Valjean, the inspector dismisses the former convict’s pleas, as if there is absolutely no chance that this man could ever change. Carpenter’s voice is taut, while his facial expressions and delivery exhibit an irritating smugness, as he sniggers at every statement contradictory to his beliefs. Javert witnesses several instances where Valjean has gone down the path of righteousness, and is driven to insanity, questioning everything he has ever stood for. Near the end of Javert’s Soliloquy, he stands on the ledge of a bridge, and Carpenter let out a maniacal laugh that sent a chill down my spine. The intensity brought forth by Carpenter was astounding, and the scene was made more incredible by the stunning effects used to create his fall. This scene alone is worth the price of admission.
In the hilarious numbers Master of the House and The Bargain, we are introduced to Little Cosette’s caretakers, as well as see them make a deal with Valjean for the orphan. Cameron Blakely’s Thénardier is the most nuanced portrayal of the role I’ve ever seen. With little quirky mannerisms, and unique spins on certain lines, Blakely’s small details take the character’s hilarity to a new level of hysteria. This is complemented perfectly by Helen Walsh, whose take on Madame Thénardier was as ghastly as it was humorous. Their guttural croaking during The Bargain never fails to make me laugh. The Thénardier’s Inn also benefits immensely from the realism added to the production, especially during Madame Thénardier’s solo in Master of the House. Gavroche was played by Sebastian Witt, who portrayed the precocious ragamuffin with considerable energy. My only disappointment was the absence of Gavroche giving Javert the finger, but I can see why they left that out.
Kerrie Anne Greenland was phenomenal as the street urchin Eponine. When we first see her, she is playful and sportive, but gradually feels the effects of her unrequited love as the show advances. Greenland not only has the vocal ability to play the role, but she is a great actress as well. In her rendition of On My Own, I could see her seemingly on the verge of tears. Another particularly tender moment between her and Wilkins’ Marius takes place at the very of end of A Little Fall of Rain, as she reaches out to kiss him, only to fall short as she passes away.
Paul Wilkins’ Marius is not only lovestruck, but filled with passion as well. He may not possess the same conviction as the rebellion’s leader Enjolras, but he does believe in their cause and fights for it all the same. The chemistry between Wilkins and Langridge (Cosette) is undeniable. From the moment the two bump into each other, you can feel the affection between their characters, even though they make no sound. In his number Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Wilkins delivers a heartbreaking performance as he mourns the death of his friends. He employs spoken singing to accentuate the grief he feels, which results in a truly authentic performance. The scene is also brilliantly staged despite its simplicity.
Chris Durling plays Enjolras, the leader of the revolution. Like many actors who have played Enjolras before him, Durling is tall, strapping, and possesses a sonorous voice that would make any audience member want to stand up and join the revolution. His portrayal exudes conviction, especially in Do You Hear The People Sing, Red and Black, and my personal favorite moment from Enjolras: The Final Battle. Durling is the most talented Enjolras I’ve ever seen, and his delivery of “Let others rise. To take our place. Until the earth is free.”, was nothing short of spectacular.
De Los Santos’ Cosette was a treat to watch. In Castle on a Cloud, she sings of a better life, and when Walsh’s Madame Thénardier emerges, the girl trembles in fear. When she first meets Valjean, she is frightened, but warms up to him shortly afterwards, when in an endearing moment, Gleeson’s Valjean lovingly taps the tip of the child’s nose as he promises to give her the life she has dreamed of.
Simon Gleeson is undeniably perfect as Jean Valjean. We follow the character over the course of the show, watching him as he ages and goes through life’s trials and gleeful moments. In the original production, the Prologue began with Valjean and the other convicts in a chain gang, hammering away at rocks, with nothing in their hands. In this production, they are rowing oars in a galleon, a sight incredibly embellished by projections of water splashing in front of them as they do so. After he let out on parole, Valjean struggles to find work and shelter in Digne, until the trusting bishop allows him to stay the night. Valjean steals the bishop’s silver, and when he is returned by the police, is forgiven by the bishop. The heart of Les Misérables lies in this singular event, when Jean Valjean is forever changed by the bishop’s kindness. After his encounter with the Bishop of Digne, the former convict starts his life anew. With the song Valjean’s Soliloquy, a change washes over him, and he decides to leave the past behind. Gleeson’s transformation from the middle-aged to elderly Valjean is truly stupendous. Guilt-ridden in Who Am I, righteous in The Confrontation, and pensive while prayerful in Bring Him Home, Gleeson nailed each and every one of these songs, in addition to the parts he sang in other songs throughout the show. His vocal skill is incredible, as he was able to belt at the top of his lungs, as well as sing beautifully in falsetto later on. Valjean is with us from the very beginning of the show as one of the lonesome, estranged convicts, and ends the show redeemed, alongside his daughter.
Over the course of the story, he continues to change the lives of countless others, including that of Fantine, played by the Philippines’ very own Rachelle Ann Go. Eight years after his encounter with the bishop, Valjean is the owner of a factory and Mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer, where Fantine works. Shortly after it is revealed that she has a secret illegitimate child, Fantine gets sacked by the foreman. She dreams of a time gone by in the iconic song I Dreamed A Dream. Go’s performance was exceptionally moving, and even her smaller parts in Lovely Ladies and Fantine’s Death demonstrated an orotund voice which filled the theater. Go is also quite the actress, and when she, as Fantine, pleaded for her child’s welfare, I was completely captivated.
The character of Cosette usually does not have much of an impact on me, however, Emily Langridge played the role with such fondness and sincerity, I found myself genuinely moved by her portrayal, and it was a delight to watch her perform.
Les Misérables usually brings me to tears in various moments throughout the show, but for some reason, I was mostly just on the verge of crying. That is, until a beautiful and heart-wrenching moment, when Cosette joins Valjean in his last moments, and wags her finger light-heartedly, pleading with him to live. In response, Valjean assures her that he will indeed try, and as he does so, taps the tip of her nose so lovingly, like he did when she was a child.This little intimate action, this perfect moment between Valjean and Cosette, collectively wrapped up the show’s soul and in turn, turned on the waterworks. I cried like I have never cried before, and that is no exaggeration. My tears flowed all throughout the Epilogue and well into the final bow. I must admit, that like many people, I wasn’t very fond of Cosette, as I preferred that Marius end up with Eponine. So whether it was an extremely late realization, or just awareness spurred by Gleeson and Langridge’s portrayals, I understand that everything is the way it should be, in the tale that is Les Misérables. After all, Cosette ends up living the life that her mother and father fought so hard to give her.
Over the duration of the show, I was constantly struck to the bone in moments of breathless delight. Being a sung-through musical, Les Mis has an abundance of songs, which range from soft and mellow ballads, to rich and booming anthems. The songs of Les Mis are known to everyone, regardless of whether or not you are a theater fan.While Les Mis has its fair share of hits, including I Dreamed A Dream, Who Am I and Stars, even its lesser-known songs are extraordinary, and its popularity is indicative of the great impact that the show has had on popular culture. This may also be chalked up to the fact that depending on where we are in our lives, we can relate to any of the show’s characters, whether it be the lovestruck Marius, the forbearing Javert and even the fiendish Thénardier.
Les Misérables is one of my two all-time favourite musicals, and I’ve had the good fortune of seeing it twice before, in the West End and on Broadway. However, no matter how many times I see the show, it never fails to stir the blood in my veins, and the Manila run is no different. The show’s success can be attributed to every single facet of the show being of the highest caliber: from the set and costumes to the music and actors. This production is an outstanding achievement in all technical aspects, but ultimately, it is the heart and soul of the show, paired with the stunning music and talent, that bring us home every single time. Even in this day and age, the centuries-old story has a resounding message, though what exactly that message is, depends on the viewer. Whether you’re fighting for freedom or yearning for love, you’ll find something in this show that speaks to your very soul. I will definitely be watching it again, and though I do not know when that will be, I do know this: Les Misérables is definitely worth waiting for, and its spirit reminds us that there is always something worth fighting for.