-a sour soup. a distinct Filipino comfort food for the soul. as unique as its people. as diverse as its culture. a blend of ingredients prepared to its sour perfection, exciting the palate, soothing the nerves, rousing the senses, bringing back memories of scenic greens, warm sun, blue waters, and the solace of home.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Does Lea Salonga Works Magic for Les Misérables?

Is she the secret weapon of this musical comeback?
I am obviously biased here because we share the same Filipino heritage. However, when Les Misérables (The Miserable Ones) re-opened in November 2006, it initially advertised itself as a limited six-month engagement. Now ten months later, it has a
n open-run date and has scheduled shows all the way to January 2008. She wasn't among the original revival cast, she came in 3 months prior to its supposed closing in May 2007. In that short time the role Lea currently plays had to be replaced not once but twice before everyone was comfortable with the character fit. Although majority of the original cast are no longer in the show for various reasons, Lea maintains her role (7 months and counting) with the only two remaining original revival cast Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt, who happen to be Filipino-Americans!

It is a pleasant surprise that it is still playing in New York. I saw the musical in May this year and I was among those who weren't totally impressed with this version. The critical reviews were rough. Learning that, I wasn't inclined to watch until they especially singled out Lea Salonga to 'save' Fantine's role. It would have been really les misérable for me to sit through an almost three hour musical if I didn't at least see Lea Salonga.

Les Miz as it's devotedly called has pretty good statistics to brag about- 16 years in New York Broadway, 22 years in London West End, ranks third as the longest-running show in Broadway history, and has been witnessed by over 54 million people in 38 countries and 21 languages since its first London performance in October 1985. The original Broadway production opened in 1987, garnering 7 Tony Awards, including Best Musical for that year. The Broadway production ended in 2003 after 6,680 performances.

So, what's missing with the current production? Why isn't it getting fantastic reviews? For starters, it has only been three years since its last curtain call and now she is back. You haven't missed her long enough yet! Majority of the critics say it is premature to revive her this early. And I agree because thousands of people share a great love for this show the first time they saw it. I fell in love with the original cast soundtrack not having even seen the original broadway production. That's how powerful the original production was years ago. This is the problem with revivals. It will always be compared to the original. And if you can't surpass your predecessor then you're in trouble. Next is, they are having trouble casting the right people. Mind you, top caliber theater actors have played the part and are playing the part but for various reasons, the cast keep changing. Thirdly, the current theater is smaller (by almost 300 seats) so the stage look cramped hence there are also smaller miserables ensemble visually obvious on the student revolution of 1832 scene which is the highlight in Act II. Not to be missed though is the revolving stage which was innovative and good to see! There is such fine detail in their props, and great lighting set the tone and mood on stage.

High expectations of the show is the typical downer from those who has seen the original version. I didn't have any but I wasn't blown away even with Lea Salonga's presence. The first time I heard I Dreamed a Dream on CD, Fantine's signature song- I had goosebumps and was teary-eyed because I felt all her pain and agony just from listening. Fantine's life is the most unfortunate of all in this musical of vast and multi-faceted characters. I was looking for that same intensity from Lea and I didn't feel it. "I Dreamed a Dream" if the performer nails it, is the most powerful ballad in the musical and is known to be a show-stopper- that's when the audience are so moved and so affected that they just give the song a standing ovation as if on cue and thundering applause follows. That didn't happen that night. I was not convinced of her playing a sickly factory worker turned into a prostitute in despair. I wasn't emotionally involved with her character that I couldn't make myself cry even on her death bed scene. She dies in Act I and is seen again as a ghost with Eponine guiding Jean Valjean to eternity in the finale of Act II. The thing is, it has gotten emotional in Act II halfway through the end and I was crying myself out, grieving over Eponine's untimely death, lamenting over the meaningful death of Gavroche and Valjean's touching death- when all the major characters were reunited with him in the finale. Yes, almost all of them die in this poignant show.

The two lead roles of Jean Valjean and Javert played by Alexander Gemignani (now replaced by Drew Sarich) and Ben Davis (took over the role from Norm Lewis and now replaced by Ben Crawford) respectively, weren't a standout. Their singing were solid and almost perfect but again the emotions are lacking. They're supposed to be two angry mortal enemies playing cat and mouse thru the whole musical and find forgiveness and remorse in the end but you don't feel it.

Ali Ewoldt as frail and beautiful Cosette (the girl on the Les Miz emblem) and Adam Jacobs as handsome Marius were cute and almost believable in their portrayals. Somehow, I find Ali's voice too sharp and high-pitched for a soprano range.

Ann Harada as deceitful Mme. Thenardier was delightful to watch having seen her in Av
enue Q as the original Christmas Eve. She's so fun to watch onstage whatever role she's playing!

Mandy Bruno (took over the role from Celia Keenan-Bolger and now replaced by Megan McGinnis) as sweet, heartbroken Eponine and Zach Rand (playing alternately with 2 other child actors) as vagabond, street smart, Gavroche stole the show for me! These two characters though have short exposure on the show are pivotal to the entire story that I think any actor given the role are lucky in that sense because the characters are so notable and captivating in itself that it doesn't matter who plays it. You are just simply absorbed and moved.

That's what I felt the first time I heard Lea Salonga sang "On my Own," Eponine's signature song, over a decade ago. While I was watching the Les Miz revival, I wished Lea was Eponine again! She owns that song! No one can sing it better than her! "On My Own" has been sang and recorded by so many but nothing comes close to Lea's rendition. If I may refresh your memory, Lea Salonga became the first Asian actress ever to play Eponine on Broadway in 1993, perform the same role in the London production, and in Hawaii, and was the one invited to play at the historic Les Misérables 10th Anniversary Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall. Sir Cameron Mackintosh hand-selected the cast for that concert, and has come to be called the Les Misérables Dream Cast, assembling cast members from around the world.

Lea Salonga, regardless of her performance when I saw her on stage that night, is one strong, remarkable woman whom we saw grow as a child singer and actress back in the Philippines and into this fine, brilliant Sir Olivier, Drama desk and Tony Award Broadway winner! She is drawing the crowd to watch her in Les Miz. There is no question that the musical is a masterpiece otherwise it wouldn't have this long staying power all over the word. It is without doubt close to our hearts and withstands time being originally written as a French Novel by Victor Hugo in 1862. 145 years later, his characters are as real as the poor, wretched ones being oppressed around the world to this very day. I'm just saying, you still need a star like Lea Salonga to pull people in it. It is a story needed to be told. And Lea Salonga might as well be the driving force of this present revival. I don't know what her contract is with the show or whether she'd give up the role when something better comes up but meantime, catch her while you still can!

Incidentally Philippine President Gloria Arroyo, took a break from her tight schedule last week (September 27) in New York to watch the matinee of Les Miz at the Broadhurst Theater. She went up the stage after the finale for picture taking with the cast and greet Lea Salonga, Fil-Ams Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs.

Note: Yaikks! I just got finished this article and found out that Lea is in fact leaving Les Miz this month! It is unclear as to why. She may be preparing for her next role as Cinderella to be played in Manila, Philippines but that's still in August 2008! Oh well, hurry now to New York to see her!!©

Les Misérables
Broadhurst Theatre

235 W. 44th Street,

New York City, New York
Date opened: November 2006

Official Les Misérables Website
Official Les Misérables-Broadway website

2 taster(s) say...:

elay said...

hey, this was one fantastic review. its great that you were being honest and everything..i grew up listening to les mis (and miss saigon) soundtracks, i practicallly know all the lyrics..that was sometime ago ewan if i could still sing along hangang ngayon..and one of the biggest frustrations ko talaga was not getting to watch miss saigon when it run in manila..i was a graduating cadet that time in PMA and we were so busy that i couldn't get away to watch it! and lea - wow..you got that picture! sana they'll stage les mis here too..and they'll have her in the cast as eponine. you're right..she owns 'on my own'..

elay | http://www.flygirl01.blogspot.com/| 12.06.07 - 9:15 pm |

eam said...

i was in General Santos, my hometown when miss saigon premiered in Manila! I wanted so much to see it too at that time... I'm glad I had the chance to see her in Les mis even though I still felt it wasn't her best. But I love her no matter what. lol Do catch her in Manila on August 2008. She's playing Cinderella!! That should be a fun show!

Lea was so accommodating during the autograph signing and photo op! That's one good thing in broadway, no one is really prima donna-- unless you're THE Julia Roberts! lol

Well, I envy you miss Fly girl!! I think you're super cool flying hueys!

thanks for dropping a note...

mae | Homepage | 12.07.07 - 12:03 am |