Rachelle Ann Go as Fantine in “Les Miserables,” ongoing at The Theatre at Solaire. The Australian production will tour Asia after its Manila run, which has been extended until May 1. PHOTO FROM CONCERTUS MANILA
The Filipino audience’s long wait to catch an original Cameron Mackintosh-produced version of “Les Misérables” is finally over, with the Manila production running for a full two months until May.
And our collective patience is rewarded with this Asian touring production that brings in award-winning performers from Australia along with the Philippines’ own Rachelle Ann Go, who took a break from the London production, and some changes in direction that, while remaining true to the core of the musical, add nuances and visual perspectives that make the emotional sweep in certain scenes even stronger.
A musical that has been loved by audiences all over the world for the past 30 years is virtually review-proof. Generally, perhaps with very few exceptions, the loyal viewers will watch the Manila production with expectations to match their fervent enthusiasm. At this point, everyone (unless they’ve been hiding under a rock for decades and didn’t even catch the controversial movie version) would be familiar with the story line and the characters. Of course, the well-known soundtrack, with numerous songs now etched into our collective memory, is the most instrumental element in drawing the audience into the drama.
The cat-and-mouse confrontations between the convict-turned-hero Jean Valjean (Simon Gleeson) and the infuriatingly rigid Inspector Javert (Earl Carpenter)—the polarities of what they stand for against the backdrop of heaving 19th-century France—are what keep the story line moving and the audience captivated.
The other characters the two protagonists come into contact with are caught in the proverbial cross fire: Cosette (Emily Langridge), Valjean’s adopted daughter; Marius, her student lover (Paul Wilkins); the corrupt innkeepers, the Thénardiers (Cameron Blakely and Helen Walsh); the student leadership headed by Enjolras (Chris Durling); and Eponine, the Thernadiers’ streetwise daughter (Kerrie Anne Greenland). In the dawn of an insurrection, all of them must decide which path to take.
What makes the audience identify with the quandary of these characters is ultimately the music of Claude-Michel Schönberg and the libretto by Alain Boublil. Their achievement is even more highlighted once the inconsistencies of Victor Hugo’s melodramatic plot emerge in the actual staging. Performed by a superb cast, the “Les Mis” soundtrack sweeps you into the grand scale of the story, and does a good job of obscuring some of the thematic flaws the creative team had to work with.
If one were to nitpick, for example, Cosette is the beautiful, bright, compassionate love of both Valjean and Marius who keeps them morally and emotionally grounded—but her character does not quite approach the complexity of Eponine, who retains a selfless, noble spirit despite her unscrupulous parents.
Enjolras springs almost full-blown as a character, and Durling’s sheer stage presence makes you want to march out with him without even knowing what he’s actually fighting for. His acting power almost overshadows everyone on the same space, including Wilkins, and even Gleeson and Carpenter at times.
Gleeson and Carpenter make a fine dueling match. Heretical as this may sound, Gleeson’s visible character evolution seems an improvement over Colm Wilkinson’s iconic performance (at least based on the 10th-anniversary concert available on video). As glorious and moving as Wilkinson’s singing was, his persona painted only one hue: self-sacrifice and suffering under grace.
Gleeson grows as a man in front of your eyes—from the embittered convict to the conflicted mayor, the fearful, insecure father, and finally an old man at peace. A spectrum of emotions dances on his face, and his aging in the musical’s last scenes is absolutely convincing.
Gleeson also makes Valjean’s constant attempts at doing the right thing understandable, even if his motivations seem to contradict him. For example, after admitting his Valjean identity in the crucial court scene, the faux mayor does not turn himself over to the authorities but races to the bedside of the dying Fantine. The audience has already empathized with him at this point and can make allowances for his actions, but Valjean’s fictional co-characters in that scene would probably have been baffled.
Javert certainly could not figure him out, ultimately to his own doom. Carpenter’s cold, imposing figure makes him an authority figure not to be trifled with. But when this antihero does crumble, Carpenter makes it sudden. While other actors have played Javert’s suicide as originating from overwhelming self-doubt and a bottomless sense of loss, Carpenter sheathes it with an anger that seems still defiant of the lesson he is trying to avoid. His Javert dies with all his pride intact. His fall does not distance him from the stars he loves; in that near-Luciferian fall, he actually becomes one with them.
Go lets out a similar sense of primal anger in her Fantine only at the end, after she has literally sold her body and soul. In Fantine’s previous scenes, she is mostly a broken-hearted woman and a vulnerable mother unable to cope with the odds against her. When her ferocity is unleashed, it is a little too late.
These little inconsistencies in detail and character can niggle at you. So do the questions that Hugo brings up but never quite answers. How does one fight injustice, evil and poverty in this mortal coil? Rigid law and order (Javert) is not the answer, and unbridled passion (the students) and personal redemption and conscious altruism (Valjean) may not be sufficient by themselves as well.
But in the end, it may not matter, as “Les Misérables” the musical has proven with its devoted international audience. The creative team, led by Boublil and Schönberg, lifts you high above these small details to make you believe that goodness can still triumph over evil, and faith in God as lived in the hearts of men can shine over a wasteland.
The soaring soundtrack, buoyed by gripping performances, lifts you up and gives you a glimpse of eternity. And for many of us, that may be enough.
“Les Misérables,” brought to Manila by Concertus Manila, plays at The Theatre at Solaire Resort & Casino and is extended until May 1. Visit www.ticketworld.com.ph and lesmis.com/manila.