les miz manila (fight songs, anyone?)

The Prologue to Victor Hugo’s Les Miz probably says it all:

“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny;
so long as the three great problems of the century–the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light–are unsolved;
so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;
so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

Of course, the irony is that those who can afford to watch this play are far from the miserable ones. I doubt there will be a Valjean–driven to desperation, looking for ways to overcome prejudice, tormented by those in power, finding sometimes questionable ways to overcome his circumstances and circumvent an oppressive system, all the while struggling with his own conscience, and being generous where he can to those more unfortunate than he–among the watchers.

The Valjeans today are being gunned down in the streets while protesting the lack of a rice subsidy. The Valjeans today are the criminals whose actions are blamed on “drugs” and, if you-know-who wins in the upcoming elections, will  be slated for summary execution in three to six months. Supposedly. (Of course, powerful thieves sitting in office or under house arrest who may or may not be under the influence are untouchable.)

The Thenardiers, amoral opportunists with a dog-eat-dog philosophy, who are they?
The Javerts, unbending and tunnel-visioned, with a serious lack of empathy, are they easily identifiable?
And the victims–Fantines, Gavrouches, the fighting ABCs, Eponines–they’re around somewhere, too.
The survivors–Cosette, Marius–are there any?
And the Myriels/Bienvenus, whose single act of kindness made a world of difference in someone else’s life, hopefully, they’ll be around too.

Human nature, after all, tends to certain patterns. So yes, the spectacle will go on.

I wonder what Hugo (if he were alive today) would make of this long-running production. He published his novel in 1862 and had it smuggled into France, hoping to spark change. Jose Rizal wrote his Noli Me Tangere in 1887, El Filibusterismo in 1891, and copies were also smuggled into the Philippines. The 19th century was full of these red-hot revolutionary ideas. How far–but not far enough–we’ve come since then, yes?

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I watched Les Miz Manila last March 31, a birthday present from my sis. (Thanks , sis, for the experience!) And I wrote my random impressions on the production, the next day:

(1) The Theater At Solaire is small, without the scope and grandeur of CCP Main Theater, but the set designer, Matt Kinley, made really good use of what space there was. Seriously loved how seamless the transitions were from scene to scene.

(2) Add to that well-timed usage of light and shadow (and firecracker-type effects) courtesy of Paul Constable and the barricade fight scenes  looked pretty good. Javert committing suicide on the bridge, falling into the darkness, also got a well-deserved ooh-and-ahh from the audience. (Personally, I felt I needed the moment to last longer, but to pull off something that technical, you’ve got to hand it to them. Besides, a life cut off is a harsh cut.)

(3) Simon Gleeson is a wonderful singer. Colm Wilkinson may have “made” Jean Valjean, but Mr. W’s manner of chewing his words–you’ve heard him, you know what I’m talking about–can be distracting for me. Mr. G doesn’t have that. He’s got the range, the style, the emotion. Listening to him, whether he’s doing a falsetto, vibratto, or straight-out belting it out and out–it’s compelling. And he’s a good-looking bloke, which never hurts (though the big reveal of the brand on Valjean’s chest was theatrical to say the least).

(4) Earl Carpenter does an appropriately stiff Javert. Philip Quast is still the Javert to beat for me, but I can’t really find fault with Mr. C’s take on the character. The energy between him and Mr. G during their confrontations is crackling. Watch them circle each other in a fight scene, it’s good. “Stars” has always been my favorite song in the musical, the combination of his singing–clipped, for the most part–and the evocative set, made watching the moment live special for me.

(5) Cameron Blakely and Helen Walsh as the Thenardiers, popular despite their villainy, are also applause-worthy. Blakely especially manages to make the opportunist Thenardier–can you believe it–almost likable. There’s a humor there that you respond to, and a depth that makes you look at the character more closely. Mr. B’s portrayal is finely nuanced–it’s less a caricature and more a complex overlay, so you realize there’s more to Thenardier than meets the eye. Walsh, meanwhile, is deliciously vulgar as the missus, and more than holds her own as a sparring partner.

(6) All this time I’ve edited a line of the intro to the song “On My Own” as “Nowhere to go, no one to turn to” when it’s really “Nowhere to turn, no one to go to.” (Don’t ask.) Anyway, Kerrie Anne Greenland does a smashing job of Eponine. Play up Eponine’s bravado and her teasing sauciness, only sneak out a little vulnerability, why not? I prefer the original and Lea’s version of “A Little Fall of Rain” but Greenland’s style is also appropriate to the character. Besides, Lea’s version can be a little too sweet.

I also noticed, by the way, that there were a lot more women in the barricades, almost half and half. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about that. Alright, but really, Eponine disguised as a male urchin and being the first to fall is enough for me to be reminded that women were indeed casualties of war, whether actively in battle or behind the scenes.

(7) Greenland and Rachelle Ann Go have a tendency to sing their sobs aloud, or incorporate that hiccup-y, teary effect into their singing. Personally, I prefer hearing the tears being held back rather than the breath released on a sob, but that’s just my preference. Go has a strong voice, so no wonder she got called on to pull this off. Her challenge is restraining that voice, and she does it well in the death scene. Kudos.

(8) Paul Wilkins as Marius and Emily Langridge as Marius and Cosette are believably amorous. They pull off “A Heart Full of Love” with the participation of Ms. Greenland’s Eponine. Those high notes are killer. To be honest, I look more at Eponine in that scene than the lovers, the eye is drawn to tragedy after all (and misery loves company). Mr. Wilkins does “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” well enough, I see now what he was talking about when he said being surrounded by candles makes it easier for him to emote. Those candles lend an added poignancy to that scene.

(9) Perhaps my major disappointment is Enjolras. He certainly looks the part. He’s also very pose-y. It can’t be helped that the leader of the student-rebels has to strike a romantic figure–but that’s just it, he always seems to be striking a pose. There’s also his voice, it’s very bark-y. Again, it can’t be helped that as a galvanizing figurehead, he has to make rousing speeches, but I wanted more diversity, I guess, in the way he sings. I wanted more from Enjolras, I wanted to see the embers in that doomed fire.

(10) The kids did their jobs well. Callum Hobson as Gavroche was most effective for me. The kid doesn’t even get his “Little People” solo (this was cut out) but he snags your attention anyway, and the little he sings gives you an idea of where he’s coming from.

(11) The orchestra tuning up is probably the most endearing thing about this production. And spying the bobbing head of the lady conductor, Laura Tipoki,  gives you a little kick. There’s a lot of passion in her movements. Seems like she’s a fan of the music, and that’s something an audience member shares.

(12) Actually, in the case of my neighbor, the music moved her so much she would sing. Older lady very much in love with what she was seeing, so I let it go, but I must say that for musicals–guys, really–please refrain from singing along. The only thing that pulled me back from shushing my neighbor is that my mom, when we used to watch movies together, would comment on the scene or ask me for explanations. (Kinda like this old lady would defer to her son.) It puzzled me why she’d be so unrestrained, but I guess it comes with age. And I’ve been there also, where I’m so excited that I exclaim or comment. But, I’m not so bad as to sing along when my neighbors are straining their ears to experience someone else’s much more gifted voice. So, for the sake of your neighbors, for the love of the miserable ones, please just shut up and enjoy the music.

It’s strange, isn’t it, that you can be enamored of something on several levels. Maybe it’s the artistry, or the music, or the sentiment. And it’s funny how you share the joy with other people, if not necessarily to the same degree.

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Here’s the published version of this stream of thought. I write much more coherently for the newspaper.

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