By Johanna D. Poblete

Theater review
Les Miserables
Ongoing until May 1
The Theatre at Solaire,
Solaire Resort & Casino,
Aseana Ave., Entertainment City,
Parañaque City

The stage is somewhat skewed, framed by seemingly loose boards, on a tilt. Listing to one side is an off-stage walkway that will later be used as an exit or pass-through. The stage curtain is a painting of the Parisian skyline, moody and dark, signed by Victor Hugo. Cameras start clicking away — the selfie a visceral claiming: “I was here” — even as a jangly tune-up of odd notes from brass, woodwinds, and percussion waft from the orchestra pit.

In time, the camera phones are hidden away, and the instruments fall silent at the lifting of conductor Laura Tipoki’s baton. The dark curtain rises, and the harmonious notes of the overture herald the first scene — of the ragged chain gang working under the lashing crops of their hard-eyed wardens — the audience exhales in excitement, some clapping, some mouthing the words to the song (“Look down!”), or whispering the cipher everyone knows (“2-4-6-0-1”).

It hits you then: This is it, Les Misérables, a play that hasn’t been routed from the stage in more than three decades. This is really happening. After years of listening to the records and obsessively watching screened performances, you’re finally watching the production live, onstage, in Manila. And it’s riveting.

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Onstage, Jean Valjean (Simon Gleeson) draws the eye, his proud carriage belying his humble prison garb. His powerful voice rings bell-like, the words crystal-clear, the tone rife with emotion. When he confronts the stuffed shirt Inspector Javert (Earl Carpenter), it’s like water bashing itself against a rock. The symphony of flowing notes, plaintive assertions and hard-edged denials, sweeps the audience along until the first climatic moment where Valjean defiantly rips apart his yellow-ticket-of-leave and declares a new story must begin.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t get any better than this.

The Theater at Solaire is small, without the scope and grandeur of CCP Main Theater, but set designer Matt Kinley makes really good use of what space there is. The timing is precise, and the detail-rich sets seem to arrange themselves like a sentient jigsaw puzzle. It’s magical how seamless the transitions are from scene to scene, with a well-timed slide of a backdrop or the quiet drop of a prop.

Add to that Paul Constable’s use of light and shadow — and that includes firecracker-type effects — and the illusion of 19th century France in the grip of a rebellion is uncanny. You can’t help but be impressed at how they managed to simulate layers of rickety wood and debris to create a ladder-like barricade, all in one rolling piece, where fight scenes can dramatically play out. Sometimes the set pieces are only deceptively bare: one turning point, a stricken Javert committing suicide on the bridge and falling into the darkness, is executed so well that it receives spontaneous applause from the audience.

While Mr. Gleeson carries the weight of expectations seemingly effortlessly, Mr. Carpenter proves his able partner. The energy between the two during their confrontations is crackling. Watch them circle each other in a fight scene — the tension ramps up and explodes in a flurry of movements. Mr. Gleeson, in particular, is a physical actor, and even if your view of his expressions is slightly obscured from the farthest orange seats, his movements tell a consistent story.

In fact, the cast and chorus display a wealth of talent. Rachelle Ann Go as Fantine has a powerful voice; and yet she manages to rein it in for the death scene. Kerrie Anne Greenland does a smashing job, playing up Eponine’s bravado and teasing sauciness, only to sneak out a little vulnerability. Both thespians, perhaps being directed to do so, tend to sing their sobs aloud, or incorporate that hiccup-y, teary effect into their singing — though I prefer hearing the tears being held back rather than the breath released on a sob, I can’t say this alternative isn’t effective.

The antiheroes, Cameron Blakely and Helen Walsh as the Thenardiers, popular despite their outright 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. His 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. Ms. Walsh, meanwhile, is deliciously vulgar as the missus, and more than holds her own as a sparring partner.

Paul Wilkins as Marius and Emily Langridge as 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. (Although, 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’ moment does come: He sings “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables” affectingly. In a previous interview, he noted how being surrounded by candles makes it easier for him to emote; those candles do lend an added poignancy to that scene.

Even the children are to be commended for doing their jobs well. Callum Hobson, in his first professional theater role 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.

There really is very little defense to the music and lyrics of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg — you have no choice but to be swept along. (Some of my neighbors were so carried away that they committed the egregious sin of singing along.) Filipinos being Filpinos, we are also susceptible to the sentiment behind the songs. We recognize the struggle in Les Misérables. There are triggers: Who doesn’t equate Valjean’s defiant tearing of his ticket with the tearing of the cedula? Oppression is oppression, and a call to freedom resonates with lovers of freedom.

You have to admit, there are parallels with our own socio-political history as a republic. Even the time frame is apt. An exiled Hugo published his novel in 1862 and had it smuggled into France, hoping to spark change. An exiled Jose Rizal wrote his Noli Me Tangere in 1887, El Filibusterismo in 1891, and copies were also smuggled into the Philippines, eventually sparking a revolution. The 19th century was full of these red-hot revolutionary ideas. Hugo spoke of social asphyxia and artificial hells on earth; Rizal spoke of a cancer. Both denounced poverty and ignorance. How far — but not far enough — we’ve come since then, yes?

We recognize these characters. We champion the underdog and sympathize with unrequited love. We identify with the miserable ones. So no wonder we respond to this musical. And so long as a spark of rebellion lives inside each of us, we’ll probably keep on appreciating “the music of a people who will not be slaves again.”