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All the reasons to see 'Les Miserables' one day more

It can be argued perhaps, that Les Miserables, the award-winning musical that can easily be defined as the quintessence of this particular theatre genre, connects to the Filipino psyche in more ways than one. 

The most obvious is the portrayal of Philippine-born Rachelle Ann Go as the woeful Fantine, whose burden was too much that in her dying moments, all that she had was the promise of the bread thief Jean Valjean that he would raise her young daughter Cosette (Filipino-Australian Chloe De Los Santos) in her stead.

Then there is the Filipinos’ love for singing, something both Cameron Blakely and Helen Walsh, who play the Thénardier couple—and play very well if I may add—acknowledged during the show’s media call at the Solaire Theatre.

“So many people here in Manila are beautiful singers,” Blakely says.

Adds Walsh: “And it’s not just singing. It’s SINGING!”

Of course the story itself, “set against the backdrop of 19th-century revolutionary France” as the press release reads, is nothing foreign to Filipinos.

Because what are we but revolutionaries through and through? In his essay “I Am A Filipino”, journalist Carlos P. Romulo writes: “In my blood runs the immortal seed of heroes—seed that flowered down the centuries in deeds of courage and defiance. In my veins yet pulses the same hot blood that sent Lapulapu to battle against the alien foe that drove Diego Silang and Dagohoy into rebellion against the foreign oppressor.”

So in bringing Les Miserables across land and sea all the way to Manila for the first time, not only did this British production of French origins bring Rachelle Ann Go home from the London West End, it also brought with it an enduring tale that overflows with compassion, faith, and hope that Filipinos are all too familiar with.

“I think as a piece of theatre, you have many wonderful and incredibly strong characters that everybody in some way, shape or form can identify with,” says Earl Carpenter who plays the stone-hearted man of the law Javert. “There are so many emotional stories that we’ve all probably at some point in our lives had to deal with. I think that’s the complex side of the story.”

And though he plays opposite Carpenter’s character, Simon Gleeson echoes this thought.

“It hits something at the heart of being human,” says Gleeson, who won a Helpmann Award for his role as Valjean. “It’s a story of redemption and ultimately about hope and I think that audiences across the world recognize that we’re all fallible and we’re all striving to be better.”

Another topic they agree on is Go, who Carpenter called brilliant and Gleeson described as genuinely talented. For her part, Go shares that she feels added pressure performing here as Fantine as Filipinos are very talented singers.

“You can’t be flat or sharp, kailangan perfect,” Go says.

It was over lunch in London when the show’s producers asked her if she wanted to play Fantine in Manila and Go naturally said yes.

“Dream come true iyun e,” Go says. “Finally mapapanood na ng mga kababayan ko ang Les Miserables and I’m part of it.”

It’s probably safe to assume that most Les Miserables fans in Manila who have yet to see the show at Solaire have only seen the award winning film version.

Such is my case and as someone who knows the words to the songs in the film’s soundtrack, watching the scenes unfold just a few meters away is every bit as magical as I imagined it would be.

“There’s something to be said about the communal experience sitting in an audience and seeing people open themselves up, it’s just very powerful,” Gleeson says. “It’s not the same as seeing it on film.”

While also different from the original London production in certain aspects, this reworked 25th Anniversary Production stands on its own as a revitalized tour de force filled with spectacular surprises up to the very end

The revolving stage is gone, reserved for the West End production at this time. The score has likewise been re-orchestrated and video projections of Victor Hugo’s drawings decorate the background during key scenes including Valjean’s sewer escape with the unconscious Marius on his shoulder and the ovation-worthy “Javert’s Suicide”.

Again, as someone who only has the film as basis for comparison, I was extremely curious how the stage version would be. The moment Javert climbed on top of the bridge railing, face to the audience, the thought of the actor falling back on a mattress seemed plausible. But with a little light and magic, Javert made a more impressive exit to which the audience roared and applauded in unison.

Carpenter, who has done both the original and the reworked productions, says that although it’s visually different, at its heart, the music, the characters are all the same.

“But I think this one is a lot more interesting for people who have never seen Les Miserables,” Carpenter continues. “For those who may have seen the film, this is much closer to that. It suits those audiences who have seen Russel Crowe and Hugh Jackman.”

Another difference watching Les Miserables live is how it can lend power and gravity to a song that the film may have toned down unintentionally. I wasn’t a fan of “Bring Him Home” until I saw Gleeson sing it in person twice, once during the media preview and the other during the gala night.

I thought it was an injustice that Hugh Jackman didn’t win Best Actor during the 85th Oscars for his role as Valjean but I wasn’t too crazy for his rendition of a song that was as sincere as any prayer could get. In Gleeson, defiant as he shouts to the sky “if I die let me die” and then switching to a falsetto tone, pleading as he utters “let him live/ bring him home”, the sincerity was deeply felt.
If there’s one criticism I can throw at Go, it would be the way she positioned herself onstage during the gala night while singing “I Dreamed A Dream”. Unlike during the media preview, this time it was difficult to see her emote even from terrific center orchestra seats, as she was a bit near upstage most of the time, only coming in close to the audience during maybe the last two lines of the song.

Other than that, the clarity and power of her voice, among other things, prove what producer Cameron Mackintosh and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg have known all this time, that Go as an artist possesses something special and that it is a reflection of the world class Filipino talent.

It all began when Schönberg saw a movie of Filipino director Lino Brocka that “had beautiful singers who were singing in Spanish, Italian, and speaking in American.”

When Schönberg came for the Manila auditions of Miss Saigon in 1988, Lea Salonga sang “On My Own” and that was when he realized that Les Miserables was already popular this far out.  

“We have found so many talents in this country,” Schönberg said to the media. “If you have so many talent in this country, it means the audience is talented, too. And we thought that you deserve to see this beautiful 25th anniversary production of Les Miserables that Cameron put together.”

(Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Les Miserables is written by Alain Boublil and Claude Michel-Schönberg and is based on the novel by Victor Hugo. It is currently playing at The Theatre at Solaire and has been extended until May 1, 2016 due to the “overwhelming response of the audiences in Manila”.)

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