Three Marionettes choirs combined to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Trinidad's oldest chorale, with what is undoubtedly its most ambitious production. On Sunday night, with World Cup jubilation and devastation still simmering, the Marionettes senior, youth and children's choirs previewed what is arguably the world's most successful musical–Les Mis�rables–at Queen's Hall.
The run will continue this coming weekend and just as on the football pitch in Rio, there will be much competition for final awards, with previous unknowns distinguishing themselves alongside the usual suspects.
Translated variously as: The Wretched, The Victims, The Dispossessed or even The Outsiders, the musical, based on the original 1980 French production by Messrs Boubil and Schonberg, is yet another adaptation of 19th-century French poet and novelist Victor Hugo's mammoth 1862 novel of redemption. Those who've never heard of Hugo (but will surely know his unforgettable character The Hunchback of Notre Dame) will probably be familiar with the main protagonist of Les Miz, ex-convict Jean Valjean, if not in his French incarnation, then as the Fugitive in the eponymous TV series.
Great literary characters never die, nor do the narratives which birth them. While the Marionettes' decision to present what has been London's longest running musical (first performed in 1985) was probably based on artistic challenge and as a suitable follow-up to the equally ambitious 2011 production of Bizet's Carmen, Hugo's original intentions for Les Miz and his social consciousness make it even more relevant to contemporary Trinidad.
Although his historical novel was based on events in France from 1815-32, Hugo's text addresses universal social issues of poverty and inequality, the exploitation and abuse of women and children, class prejudice and bourgeois hypocrisy as well as debates in moral philosophy–justice, law, truth. And because it is rooted in the human condition there is much about love, loyalty, sacrifice, treachery, venality, corruption and finally redemption.
As Hugo wrote: "Wherever men go in ignorance or despair, wherever women sell themselves for bread, wherever children lack a book to learn or a warm hearth, Les Mis�rables knocks at the door and says, 'Open up, I am here for you.'"
By definition, a musical is as much about acting as is it is about singing; simply put, it's a play with songs. But the challenges of presenting Les Miz are compounded by spoken dialogue being replaced by "very difficult, musically unpredictable recitatives."
It is the acting and the recitatives, which will need some honing, in order to match the superlative singing (accompanied by an orchestra to match) and excellent stage production, which the first-time audience of this Caribbean premiere enjoyed on Sunday.
Like other 19th-century social realist/expressionist novels (Dickens, Dostoyevsky) the plot of Les Miz is complex and convoluted, mixing cases of mistaken and assumed identities, an expansive cast of characters and broad temporal setting. But in essence, the structure of both novel and derived musical are driven by the trope of the hunter and his prey: the ex-convict Valjean (sentenced for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his starving sister and her child) pursued across France and the years by his nemesis, police chief Javert (ironically the offspring of another jailbird).
Sunday's production brought former DPP prosecutor Nigel Floyd (who shares the role with Marlon de Bique) onstage as Valjean, to Marvin Smith's Javert. As the axis around which the entire production revolves the duo were indefatigable; Floyd credible in his transition from embittered reject to compassionate redeemer, while Smith maintained his sociopathic rigidity –representing blind adherence to the law rather than natural justice–right up to his eventual suicide. One of the many sung highlights was the face-off between Valjean and Javert, The Confrontation: a duet of two implacable wills meeting head on. Valjean's role is unbearably demanding and Floyd rarely faltered in song; occasionally in some of the recitatives his control of pitch wobbled, but this is a minor observation of an otherwise sterling performance.
The fireworks engendered by the clash of fallible man and implacable law enforcer were deftly ameliorated by Errol James' almost dulcet Bishop, the agent of a deus ex machina, who, unlike the humans who self-servingly and often hypocritically, maintain an oppressive status quo, offers the possibility of grace.
Given the emotional intensity of the plot, Hugo, like his English counterpart Dickens, avoided burning out readers with generous helpings of comedy or even bathos. Between the two poles of Valjean and Javert are lesser mortals, mostly comprising "the wretched" of the title. Recalling such fairytales as Cinderella is the subplot of the fallen Fantine (an impoverished woman deserted by her bourgeois lover and left alone to raise their daughter Cosette). The transforming Valjean, now a successful yet philanthropic factory owner and mayor, pities the spurned Fantine, driven to prostitution to feed her sick daughter, and makes her a deathbed vow to care for Cosette.
At which point the intensity of the chase diverts to bawdy comedy in the form of Cosette's venal "foster parents", tavern keeper Th�nardier (energetically performed by David Stephens) and his mocking wife (chillingly reprised by production director Caroline Taylor).
Cosette's situation is well known in the Caribbean, particularly Haiti, where the travesty of the restavek syndrome continues: small children sent to relatives or guardians as domestic helps, reduced to abusive slavery. Little Cosette was one of the standout performances–by Annalise Emmanuel; she projected the frailty and vulnerability which Hugo must surely have intended.
The interpretation of her guardians' roles may have been misguided, however. While both Th�nardiers captured the ugliness which infects humans who have sold their souls for greed, and the song Master of the House might go down just as well in one of the rings of Inferno as in an old-style music hall, the decision to retain the Cockney accent of the London production is questionable.
Marionettes artistic and creative director Gretta Taylor argues in the programme: "In English its Cockney turn of phrase allows a comic contrast between the working class and the well-to-do who exploited them, so we have left the accent as it was intended." Given that Les Miz is universal and derives its power not from its setting but its human drama, perhaps it would be more appropriate for a Trinidadian/Caribbean production to use Creole. The under/working class here don't speak or sing in Cockney, but they do express themselves in Creole. The same contrast Gretta Taylor wished to retain could have been just as successfully delivered in Trini Creole, to the Trinidadian English of the bourgeois roles.
This is merely a morsel of constructive criticism, which in no way detracts from an overall assessment, which is of a highly ambitious and largely successful production.
In terms of pure entertainment Les Miz cannot be faulted and without revealing too much more of this human drama which affirms so many of the qualities T&T now so desperately needs re-affirming, mention must be made of some glorious new talents joining the ranks of the established. Danielle Williams (Cosette) and Raguel Gabriel (Marius) have both the voice and experience to carry the romantic core of the plot and the message of triumph, hope, and love over greed, deception and hatred, but it was Aurora Tardieu's interpretation of the role of Eponine, in her selfless unrequited love for Marius, which was as riveting as the diminutive Elsie Blanc's portrayal of the street urchin Gavroche. Here are two new stars whom both the Marionettes and the national community must welcome and continue to nurture. Kudos also to the stage crew who seamlessly rearranged the stage to accommodate a dizzying number of scene changes without for a moment interrupting the momentum.
With the World Cup out of the way, I can think of no other distraction worthy of keeping anyone away from Queen's Hall this weekend. Those who choose to miss this opportunity of revelling in a Caribbean premiere delivered with such panache and talent are indeed miserable.