One thing I don’t like about Les Miserables–it happened so fast. The two-and-a-half-hour performance was not enough for me to absorb all the emotions of the show. It seems that the gap between the prologue and epilogue lasted only for a few minutes. While watching, I got lost the sense of time and just enjoyed the spectacle unfolding right in front of me. My body automatically reacted to the art and brilliance of Les Mis that my brain did not have to tell my hands to clap, my mouth to laugh, or even my eyes to shed tears. It all just happened without me being conscious of it. And perhaps this is the reason why writing a review about Les Mis is difficult. It is one of the few musical theatre performances which communicates to the heart rather than the mind.
My humble experience in watching theater does not allow me to compare this new and re-imagined production of Cameron Mackintosh’s classic mega-musical from the original show playing in London. What I can only assert after watching it is that whatever modification they did to present Les Mis to the 21st-century audience, it is undoubtedly an improved version. I haven’t seen the original production but based on my subjective view, what I saw could be the best rendition. Mackintosh and his two French musician allies, Allain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg, the geniuses who also gave birth to an equally acclaimed West End show ‘Miss Saigon’, talked so much about their efforts in putting a different twist to the orchestration of this new Les Mis. True enough, there is an obvious change to this new production in terms of key and tunes compared to the many versions available on YouTube (including Lea Salonga’s I Dreamed a Dream and On My Own). However, both the original and the new are great that the question which one is better is impossible to answer (or even immaterial to ask). The creative team is successful in doing a crucial task to recreate a masterpiece without losing the essence of the show.
Hardcore Les Mis fans have all the reasons to celebrate that Jean Valjean’s tale continues to endure after its first performance more than three decades ago. I cannot speak for Mackintosh, but I think the need for a new production of Les Mis is to make it last rather than forgetting the original as if the show does not already hold the title for being the longest-running musical in both West End and Broadway.
Meanwhile, I have more than few things to say about the cast of this Asia production who all gave justice to the characters of the epic story. Manila is so fortunate to experience Les Mis through the combinations of talents from Broadway, London’s West End and Australian productions. It’s like getting a piece from every great cast in order to put up a humongous and even more phenomenal performance. My top three actors would be Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean), Earl Carpenter (Inspector Javert) and Cameron Blakely (Thenardier). Gleeson was so true to his character and brought me memories from the time I was reading Victor Hugo’s novel. He is like the Valjean who the author wrote about and it felt like I was transported at the very milieu of the story. On the other hand, Carpenter does not only have a great voice but also the best acting ability. While the life of Valjean is redemptive, Javert is someone who chased a running fugitive in an effort to accomplish his duty and be a faithful protector of the law. This adds to the complexity of his character sketch because anyone who would play the part must have a balanced air of power and integrity, both of which Carpenter has excellently portrayed. When it comes to showmanship, Blakely certainly has the charisma to win extra favour from his audience. The audience wanted to render applause to him even if his acts were not yet done, a good hint on how impressive a performer he is.
Emily Langridge is also a favourite. With her operatic voice, she undoubtingly can play the part of Christine Daae in The Phantom of the Opera or be the next Fantine in other productions of Les Mis. Paul Wilkins and Chris Durling are very fitting to their roles as the charming French schoolboys of the June Rebellion in 1832. Their cherubic faces are an excellent bonus for their amazing voices.
I love the songs which involved a huge number of ensemble singers like ‘Master of the House’, ‘Lovely Ladies’, and ‘At the end of the day’. These scores show what melody the whole cast can produce when they sing together. The orchestra created music that made my spirit shake every time the conductor’s baton hit the air. Many may find this an exaggeration but I had a hard time breathing during the first minutes of the show. The sound of the instruments has a unique effect, inviting people to immerse into the performance. ‘One Day More’ remains to be the iconic anthem of the uprising, followed by the ‘People’s Song’. But I like the former better. The exchange of lines in the song is perfect for the cast to belt out notes. It is also a scene where every aspect of the show works, from the music to set design. Everything smoothly flows as a remarkable conclusion to the first act.
The re-imagined production of Les Mis made good use of technology in creating a modern backdrop. The LCD curtain (I don’t know what was the exact material used) is a popular subject of conversation after the show. Everyone can’t help but be awed with the translucent curtain where the backdrop of each scene was projected. It has to be the greatest innovation applied to the show since such technology did not exist back in 1985 when Les Mis performed in front of its first audience in Barbican Theater, London. Instead of using common pictures or painted sets, the production converted some of Victor Hugo’s paintings into moving background in order to be faithful to the taste and imagination of the author himself.
I would love to see once more the suicide of Javert not only because of its drama but with the texture of the scene. Up until now, I am in deep contemplation on how Carpenter managed to float in the air (if ever he did because that’s how it appeared) and created the illusion of him falling into an abyss. Likewise, the scene when Valjean carried Marius in underground sewers was like watching a 3D movie rich in visual depth.
The people who operate the stage deserve compliments for making a seamless flow. The stage of THE THEATER AT SOLAIRE was decorated with large props which made it a perfect mimicry of the 19th-century Parisian street. There were windows, balconies, and doors everywhere that you cannot possibly know where the next character will appear, or which exit he will take for the transition of scenes. The objects used on stage were remote-operated. It was particularly fun to watch because there were no crew members seen pushing or pulling away sets when there is a need to change props.
There are portions of the show which displayed figurative and subliminal messages. In ‘Empty Chairs and Empty Tables’, Marius reminisces his moments with his friends and on the latter part of the song, the dead children of France appeared carrying candles. These candles represent human soul as its fire die out at the end of the song, leaving Marius’ candle the only light kindling in darkness.
There is no way to express how much I love to watch Les Mis again. Watching theatre isn’t cheap and I have to wait for another milestone in my life to make myself deserving for a wonderful reward (my ticket was a graduation gift from my parents). But I am eternally grateful that I was able to experience something that will stay in my core memory. The common words used to describe the show: ‘breathtaking, ‘spectacular’, ‘unforgettable’ etc. no longer justify the art of Les Mis. As its quality continues to improve, from scoring to aesthetics, critics should also think of new terms to describe a show that is still maturing up until now. I stick to my only complaint about the show. Two hours were not enough to fully grasp everything the show can offer. Thus, I cannot do the job of providing new words in order to make sense of Les Mis. But I will certainly join the chorus in saying that it is a one-of-a-kind piece of theatre, which after three decades since its birth, continue to dream new dreams for its audience.
To all the people who are planning to watch Les Miserables for the first time, I encourage you to read the Victor Hugo novel before booking tickets. It is a substantial literary piece made up of more than 1400 pages. However tedious it may sound, it can help a lot in understanding why the characters behave the way they do; why Fantine suffered a terrible fate, how Jean Valjean managed to escape from Inspector Javert during their confrontation in front of Fantine’s deathbed, and the story behind Marius’ ring that has an interesting origin involving the historic Battle of Waterloo. These details support the excellent reputation of Hugo in the world of literature and why Les Mis is arguably the best material converted from ‘page to stage’.
The secret ingredient of Les Mis is conscience. A rare element that can trigger all known human emotions. We see through the life of Valjean that conscience is enough to win over life’s misery and stage a revolution to call freedom from the prison of our soul. And in the core of its story lies the one thing we all live by—LOVE.