Theatre Review: Les Misérables

Every year, students and staff of UNMC get a chance to witness how our own members of UNMC come together to put up an impressive show in the field of performing arts. Uni Per Arts presented us the very first fully staged production of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in Malaysia, also the very first production that includes a Chinese orchestra, that happened on campus for three consecutive days.

Adapted from one of the most influential books of all times, this play aims to explore the struggle of a society that fought for values greater than the life of a single man.  As how the director of this play, Dr. Sergio Camacho puts it:

It is a story of redemption and selfishness, of compassion and courage. The story of a man who falls, and is given a second chance, which he uses for the respite of the pains of the lives of those around him.

When the doors opened, the audience was welcomed with the orchestra’s melodious playing, that painted an image of sophistication. The play commenced after a slight delay, with the conductor of the orchestra taking his podium.

 

The play follows the protagonist, Jean Valjean (played by Eugene Ong) being released on parole after 19 years in prison. He was punished for stealing bread to save his sister’s family from starving. His parole ‘earned’ him a yellow ticket of leave which not only binds him to the law, but also makes him an outcast in society. The plot then develops to highlight how Jean Valjean breaks his parole, gaining him the eternal wrath of Javert (played by Thean See Xien), and assumes the identity of Monsieur Madeleine, now a mayor who owns a factory in which he promises Fantine (played by Kareema Ramli) that he would look after her young daughter, Cosette (played by Chong Xin Rou). After several other incidents (and passage of years), the first act ends with a group of people preparing for a revolution.

This second act starts with the building of a barricade in which the audience witnessed many characters being killed in the name of revolution. Unrequited love, social injustice, care and compassion for one another were recurring themes that were prevalent in the second act of the play. We see how one’s act of bravery is reflected in their willingness to die while protecting others. The second act appears to be more significant than the first, as many more events took place in this act. From numerous murders to revelations of truths to more characters dying and some others falling in love, it was a rollercoaster of emotions. The play ends with a happy marriage between Marius and Cosette, just before the passing of Jean Valjean.

As someone who had neither watched nor read the play, I found myself depending on two ‘aids’ to help me understand what was happening on stage. The first being the performance itself, and the second being the booklet provided to the audience, which contained the plot summary and a list of actors and their respective characters. In many instances, I constantly found myself referring to the booklet just to understand what was being shown on stage and what it aimed to achieve. Actors playing multiple characters and the lack of clear stage transitions were some reasons as to why I had to depend on these additional aids rather than just focusing on what was happening on the stage. Perhaps if the main characters of the play were not given other prominent side roles, it would have been easier to follow. Additionally, the lack of vocal clarity, due to both technical and projection issues, and having to depend on the booklet throughout the play gave me a challenge in following the overall plot of the play.

The crew deserves credits for their hard work in various areas. Visually, the props, costumes and lighting used in this play were both suitable and impressive. The fact that the crew was able to come up with these things in such a short amount of time was indeed something that must have not been easy. Certain scene directions and choreography were stunning and obviously thought out well on the production side, such as the factory scene in the beginning, and the scenes with the barricade in the second act. Though the microphones and sound system caused inconvenience and unwanted disruptions throughout the play, some of the characters successfully did not let that hinder them from owning their performance. The way Shamini Vasu (in the role of Eponine) and Syamila Abu Bakar (who played Madame Thénardier) projected their voice and emotions through their actions and expressions made the play more memorable.

Seeing this to be a musical piece, the orchestra and the songs in this play played significant roles to contribute to the overall production. At instances the orchestra was extremely loud, making it hard to hear what the actors on stage were saying, and sometimes even drowning them out completely. However, there were moments in which the orchestra smoothly and effectively conveyed the meanings and emotions that was being portrayed. It is important to acknowledge the fact that not everyone is gifted with musical talent, and for a university level production, it was impressive. As a whole, the songs sung by the cast definitely brought back memories for those who were familiar with the original versions and created new memories for those like me who heard it for the first time. Props to the ensemble cast for holding their own throughout the play, in terms of both singing and acting, as they played necessary roles in indicating the passage of time or changes in setting.

 

All in all, congratulations are in order to the cast and crew for pulling off a play as big as Les Misérables . It’s no easy feat to take on one of the greatest theatrical productions in the world, and making it work as well as it could in an unforgiving venue like the Great Hall must have been a challenge. Good job to all involved!

 

We managed to get some short reviews from the audience after the play:

“The play was a bit of blur. I think that the transitions between scenes were very choppy and awkward. As a person who already watch the movie and musical, sometimes I get confused with what was happening during the play. I wouldn’t say I was unhappy with it but it could be executed better. It was worth the money because there were a lot of parts of the show that was really good!”

“I was quite disappointed in how the whole play took place. I could not hear what the characters were trying to say and the sound system did not help either. However, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the characters having fun on stage.”

“This is my first time watching a play on campus. Though this play had its few shortcomings, in the end of the day, I had fun singing along to all the songs that were being performed.”

 

Cast List of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables

Directed by Sergio Camacho & Syamila Abu Bakar

Jean Valjean – Eugene Ong
Javert – Thean See Xien
Fantine – Kareema Ramli
Mr. Thenardier – Khairul Anuar Jamaludin
Mdm Thenardier – Syamila Abu Bakar
Marius – Loh Wei Le
Cosette – Chong Xin Rou
Eponine – Shamini Vasu
Enjolras – Ng Kaiven
Gavroche – Safira Iskandar Anuar
Abbess – Tennielle Callista Chua
Combeferre – Amir Hisyam
Grantaire – Loo Guo Wang
Courfeyrac – Nurul Hamidah Abd Rahman
Joly – Hua Zai Heng
Feuilly – Izzah Affandy
Captain – Mohamad Rusydi Mohd Ramli
Head Worker – Kareshma Martin

 

 

By Dinesh Jayabalan, photos by Kuan Meng Xian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article updated April 7, 1.48pm

Writer, feminist, theatre enthusiast, but most importantly a purveyor of the importance of performing arts, from dance to spoken word and all in between.

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