Review: Bleak 'Les Mis' radiates with talent, heart

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Mar 17 2016 11:19 PM | Updated as of Mar 17 2016 11:51 PM

Composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and producer Cameron Mackintosh join the cast at curtain call on Wednesday's gala night at Solaire. Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

MANILA – Consider the Manila run of the global theatrical hit “Les Miserables” a thank you present from its creators to the Filipinos.

At the musical’s gala night on Wednesday at The Theater of Solaire Resort and Casino, composer Claude-Michel Schonberg and producer Cameron Mackintosh joined the cast for the curtain call, as they basked in the prolonged standing ovation from the well-dressed audience.

In a speech, Schonberg thanked the Philippines for sharing its talents to the world, recalling that when he first met Lea Salonga during the Manila auditions for “Miss Saigon” in 1988, she sang “On My Own” from “Les Miserables.”

“We realized that far away in the east, there was a country where ‘Les Miserables’ was already popular,” Schonberg said.

Salonga eventually performed “On My Own” as Eponine in “Les Mis,” and eventually played Fantine as well. 

Other Filipinos who have starred in “Les Mis” include Joanna Ampil, who was at the audience and was also acknowledged by Schonberg in his speech; and Rachelle Ann Go, who last year joined the West End production as Fantine – the same role she is playing in the Manila run.

All three joined "Les Mis" after successful stints in "Miss Saigon," also composed by Schonberg.

Finally in Manila

The cast sings 'One Day More.' Handout photo

“Les Miserables,” which opened in London back in 1985, is the last of the big mega-musicals of the ‘80s – along with “Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon” and “Cats” – to be brought to Manila. 

Based on the classic Victor Hugo novel about one man’s redemption set against the backdrop of the France’s anti-monarchist rebellion, “Les Miserables” continues to mesmerize theatregoers with its melodramatic story, pop-operatic score and epic sweep.

While Repertory Philippines staged the musical at the Meralco Theater in 1993 with an all-local cast, this touring production running for six weeks at Solaire features a multinational cast from the Australian, UK and New York productions.

Moreover, this staging follows the current West End and Broadway revivals, which introduced new updates to the musical’s overall look and feel. Notably, the iconic revolving stage has been ditched, while video projections, which included backdrops based on actual paintings by the novelist Victor Hugo, gave the musical a bit of movie magic. This was perfectly utilized to show the underground maze of Paris and in a key scene involving the dogged police inspector Javert.

The barricade scene. Handout photo

Despite this, the new design seems intended to emphasize its bleak, heavy setting, as suggested by the worn-out and distressed wooden homes, the muddy costumes and grey skies. 

The scenes of Fantine, in particular, play out in gritty and depressing detail and Go certainly provides her with the necessary frailty. Her rendition of the popular “I Dreamed A Dream” isn’t the bombastic, contest piece it has become but a pained cry of hopelessness.

(WATCH: Rachelle wows with 'I Dreamed A Dream')

Fantastic cast

The despair that envelopes the new “Les Mis,” however, didn’t overshadow the radiant display of talent onstage. While Go is the main come-on for this production, she isn’t the only one who shines.

Among the females, Kerrie Anne Greenland from the Australian production was also excellent as Eponine. Although gifted with powerful pipes, she chose a more emotional approach the musical’s other popular ballad “On My Own.” Such feels in that number.

As her object of affection Marius, Paul Wilkins’ vocal tone is similar to that of Michael Ball but one remembers his big number, “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” for its gloomy and stark staging.

But “Les Mis” is really about the battle between Jean Valjean and Javert. 

Simon Gleeson sings 'What Have I Done'. Handout photo

Here, Valjean is played by Simon Gleeson from the Australian production, a terrific actor who hit those punishing high notes in the early scenes, notably in the extended Prologue and the dramatic “Who Am I?” with rock-star efficiency. While he was exceptional as the brasher, younger Valjean, he still managed to bring a tear or two with his beautiful rendition of “Bring Him Home.”

While Valjean is the main character, Broadway’s Earl Carpenter stole the thunder on gala night with his masterful performance as Javert. With his full-bodied baritone, Carpenter brings to fore Javert’s moral certitude that is increasingly mired with frustration before collapsing in the face of Valjean’s show of mercy.

The new “Les Miserables” may have toned down the bombast for a simpler, more melancholic feel but the musical has retained its power to wow and move audiences.

More than 30 years after it premiered, Schonberg’s gift continues to keep on giving.