By Violi Calvert, Australian Filipina MagazineOctober 01, 2019

The Miss Saigon musical staged by Showbiz Christchurch at the Isaac Theatre Royal in Christchurch opened last Friday (September 27) to a captivated audience.

Judging by the number of people up on their feet in [a] standing ovation at the end of the show, it was a huge success.  Even during the intermission, the buzz and lots of smiling faces indicated the audience was suitably impressed by what they had seen so far.

The musical, which was written in tribute to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil of Les Misérables fame has been toasted globally. I have previously watched three productions of Miss Saigon in Sydney and could confidently say that this time, again, the story was well told and would have a strong season in Christchurch.

The story of the lead up to the fall of Saigon draws out and gets the audiences involved in the drama of the lives of people affected by the American war. It centres on [the] romance of a young innocent Vietnamese girl (Kim) and an American GI (Chris), which turns into a tragedy when they got separated when Saigon falls. Unbeknown to Chris, he fathered a son with Kim. Their reunion years later was heart-wrenching with Kim then meeting the wife of Chris (Ellen), then deciding how her son could have a better life.

Overall the cast and the ensemble delivered through the haunting and challenging songs, the convincing acting, the music, and the crisp and well synchronised group moves.

They had been aided by the simple but effective set and props, effects, lighting, costumes and make-up. Notably, the helicopter scenes and the gates cleverly shifting, shutting out the anguished crowd wanting to get out, were so realistic that the audience felt they were part of the scenes.

Marcus Rivera, who played The Engineer, was the standout performer.  I have watched him twice in that role and I would say that he again had gone a notch higher in his latest portrayal.

He commanded the stage in “The Heat is On in Saigon” and “If You Want to Die in Bed” and mesmerising in “The American Dream” amidst the backdrop of scantily-clad showgirls and male dancers.  He personified an unsavoury and disreputable pimp, with his confident singing not missing a beat with the orchestra’s accompaniment.

But don’t just take my word for it.  Patrick Shepherd who did the review for Stuff.Co.NZ also felt that: “the show’s success rests on the three main leads and especially the engineer.

Marcus Rivera was excellent as the sleazy, self-serving manipulator making a buck amid the chaos. …. Rivera relished this role, singing with an easy confidence and plenty of cheeky sauce.”

Backstage Christchurch reviewer Kate Divett also said:  “Marcus Rivera (The Engineer) is sassy and clever as the opportunistic club owner – his moment in “The American Dream” was memorable.”

Tina Bergantinos Panlilio, a Filipino-New Zealand singer and musical theatre actress who played the role as Kim and Jack Fraser as Chris, get equal votes from me in their level of performance and contribution to the success of the show.  Both have strong voices and convincingly conveyed the deep emotions they were feeling.  If I were to pick only one song by each of them to put on the weighing scale, it would be Panlilio’s rendition of “I’d Give My Life for You” and Fraser’s “Why God Why”.

Daniel Aguilar, another Fil-Aussie singer and stage actor, who was a late addition following an adjustment of the cast, did the role of Thuy superbly. He has played the same role years ago and his confidence from that stint showed.

James Foster‘s acting and vocals, in the role of John, get a big tick, too.  His exchange with Chris as a concerned colleague and friend in “The Telephone Song” and leading the all men choir in the Opening of Act II – “Bui Doi” especially touched and drew much appreciation from the audience.

Hannah Austin played the role of  Chris’ wife Ellen in a touching way.  Her rendition of  “I Still Believe” with Kim as thousands of miles separated them and “Now That I’ve Seen Her” expressed a torn yet hopeful heart.

Sion Choi (Gigi), who made her musical theatre debut, is a talent to watch out for.  As she gains more experience, she would be able to show off more of her vocals and exude more confidence onstage.

This Miss Saigon production is a stunning theatrical spectacle and amazing musical theatre.  I tip my hat to the Director, Stephen Robertson; the Musical Director, Richard Marrett and Showbiz Christchurch for a job well done.

Miss Saigon runs through to October 12 at the Isaac Theatre Royal, Christchurch.

Violi Calvert is a producer/broadcaster of Radio Tagumpay, Triple H 100.1FM and winner of the Parliament of New South Wales Multicultural and Indigenous Media Award for Coverage of Community Affairs (2015).

By Emma Dyer

Miss Saigon starts in 1975 at the very end of American involvement in the Vietnam conflict, the Fall of Saigon. If, like me, you go to see Miss Saigon with a preconceived idea of the show, prepare to have your expectations delightfully challenged. I had read and heard a lot about both the show itself and the history that inspired it. There are certainly some aspects of this, originally groundbreaking show, that can now be seen as problematic. However, Showbiz Christchurch’s production of it firmly addresses issues that a decade ago, when they last performed it, would not have been considered. One of the most valuable contributions to this show I’ve seen is the care and effort taken to talk with real people, refugees and veterans, who will see their own history somewhat reflected in this show. Context really is what makes Miss Saigon more than just a show, women like Kim still exist, and people continue to be displaced by war and injustice. Hagar New Zealand is an organisation that supports people who have suffered these traumas. After watching the show it was easy to see why Showbiz Christchurch have chosen to support the excellent work that Hagar does.

The three key roles are Kim (Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio), The Engineer (Marcus Rivera), and Chris (Jack Fraser). The amazing voices of these three lead performers propel this tragic story across the Isaac Theatre Royal. It is hard not to be drawn in. Without spoiling the plot for those who like to be surprised, the story centres around a young Vietnamese woman, Kim, who endures many of the different hardships refugees still suffer today. Orphaned and having fled her village to the big city of Saigon, she is desperate, and enters into work as a ‘bar girl’ in Saigon at “Dreamland”. On her first night as a bar girl, she meets a young American man, Chris. This meeting is to change their already chaotic lives forever.

One of the aspects Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio especially brings to this role is her ability to convey both innocence and strength at the same time. Her portrayal of Kim gives a completely believable voice to thousands of authentic Vietnamese stories. Having had the privilege to hear some of the stories told to Showbiz Christchurch, by now local Vietnamese women, I can say that her Kim does them justice.

Even a sad story needs comedy for balance, in this case, it often comes from the sleazy and shady character who owns Dreamland, “The Engineer”. It’s a tribute to Marcus Rivera that he can play a character who quite often behaves as in a morally reprehensible way but still comes across as likeable, even relatable. A line from the song “Backstage at Dreamland” sums up The Engineer perfectly, “shut up and put your hot pants on”. The fact that it barely raises an eyebrow among the girls he employs ought to make you thankful to live here in our usually more enlightened society.

Chris is best summed up as what happens when young men are sent abroad into a war of questionable morality. In casting Jack Fraser Showbiz Christchurch have hit perfection, he melts into the role and adds the humanity that could otherwise be missing from this tired and warworn soldier. That’s not to mention his always fantastic voice, every word sung is perfectly clear and filled with emotion and meaning.

The music in Miss Saigon is as epic as you’d expect from the talented duo who also created the musical Les Misérables. Something you won’t see from your seat in the theatre, but is of particular note, is that the score is so complex and detailed as to require not one but two percussionists to produce the wide range of distinctive musical elements that make this show feel so atmospheric. One of the best parts of the whole show combines both sound and sight. This occurs in the first act as the story transitions in time from 1975 to 1978, the orchestra masterfully provides the soundtrack to a regime change, while the communist army marches across stage, faceless. It’s hard not to be awestruck by this.

The set and costumes for a show are always one of my highlights. I like to be dazzled. The costumes for Miss Saigon are beautiful and cunningly designed to be as tasteful as possible, given the constraints of characters who sometimes have to wear “hot pants”. But it was Harold Moot’s set that most caught my imagination. There were many amazing pieces but perhaps the most interesting was an enormous American flag made from flashing lights, straight out of Las Vegas. Head of Lighting Darren McKane told me after the show that each of those hundreds of bulbs was a delicate (and hot) incandescent bulb that had been carefully saved from the last production of Miss Saigon a decade ago. Go and watch the show, if only to marvel at the effort involved in just this one feat of set construction.

Review: Patrick Shepherd, Stuff Entertainment, Sep 28 2019

Miss Saigon is one of the iconic shows of its generation and this production goes right to the heart of it.

Those who love the musical will not be disappointed and those who don’t know it, well, this is a great opportunity to do so.

This realistic and gritty rendition has all the familiar ingredients the audience hangs out for, from the appearance of Kim’s cute son to the visual spectacle of the helicopter.

As always, the Showbiz company worked hard and gave it their all, but the show’s success rests on the three main leads and especially the engineer.

Marcus Rivera was excellent as the sleazy, self-serving manipulator making a buck amid the chaos. Rivera made the transitions of the character credible with the punchy The Heat is On in Saigon and If You Want to Die In Bed, the menacing The Morning of the Dragon and a tantalisingly ironic The American Dream. Rivera relished this role, singing with an easy confidence and plenty of cheeky sauce.

As the thwarted couple, Tina Bergantinos-Panlilio (Kim) and Jack Fraser (Chris) dug deep in delivering two very powerful performances. I particularly enjoyed I’d Give My Life for You (Kim) and Why God Why? (Chris) and the tenderness they both showed in The Last Night of the World and Sun and Moon. Throughout they were superb and their intensity never let up.

The scantily clad girls were called on to do some fairly brazen things which they did, bravely and unselfconsciously. While the cast definitely looked the part and were robust when aggression was needed, on occasion they didn’t sound quite so secure with occasional weaknesses showing up in exposed passages, the wedding ceremony (Dju Vui Vai) a case in point which came across a tad strained.

The male chorus in Bui Doi, however, was as stirring a rendition as you could hope to hear. It also saw James Foster (John) at his dramatic best, hectoring from behind a lectern while heart-wrenching images played out on the screen behind him. Hannah Austin (Ellen) shone in an impassioned account of Now That I’ve Seen Her and her duet with Kim (I Still Believe) was similarly strong. Daniel Aguilar did well as the aggrieved Thuy, suitably officious and volatile.

The band was solid, a nice touch having the live sax player in the club but I did feel some of the ethnic samples were overly prominent in the mix at times. Sets were deceptively simple but very effective, the lighting effects bringing warmth to the sun, an eerie menace to the advancing mob and gravitas to Ho Chi Minh’s statue. The flags, political imagery and garish lights in The American Dream were also neatly offset by the monotone flats and hints of bamboo.

The cute “aw” moment of Tam’s reveal usually gets more of a reaction but curiously didn’t. However, look out for Thuy’s ghost in the second half – it is surprisingly chilling.

Photo by Wendy Riley

By Emma Dyer

Showbiz Christchurch’s mid-year concert, The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, is as delightful as a box full of chocolates. It is a perfectly sized taster, a wide range of pieces from one of the most renowned composers of musical theatre. If you aren’t familiar with his work, if you are familiar with his work, if you love it, if you don’t, whatever your feelings you will almost certainly find something to appreciate in this spectacular show.

James Foster and Charlotte Taylor. Photo by Wendy Riley

James Foster and Charlotte Taylor. Photo by Wendy Riley

Showbiz Christchurch have been given special permission, from Andrew Lloyd Webber himself, to make this show more than just a singer on stage and some musicians hidden away. Instead what you are treated to is a selection of fully staged mini productions from ten different musicals. Each given the care, costumes, choirs, full orchestras, expertly performed choreography, subtle but perfect lighting, and so on that make you feel instantly transported to that musical. Part of the genius of the evening (and of the composer himself) is really that there is such a wide range of musical styles and subject matter. With so many highlights throughout the evening it is indeed a hard task to pick just a few.

Evita transports you to 1940s Argentina.  Charming Evita (Chuana McKenzie) whether for love or love of power pushes herself as a perfect match for Juan Peron (Michael Bayly). She sings of her claims that she’d be “surprisingly good” for him, while the other half of the stage is given over to a couple dancing a tango to represent this verbal tango taking place between Evita and Juan Peron.

Photo by Wendy Riley

Photo by Wendy Riley

One of the absolute stars across many numbers from several different musicals is James Foster. He completely blew us away every time he took to the stage, appearing to be a natural actor who seems to embody every role he takes on, his powerful voice impressed most especially in “Music of the Night”. Another from The Phantom of the Opera, “Prima Donna” pairs laugh out loud comedy with breathtaking vocals when Donna Alley perfectly plays the demanding yet insecure personality of an early 20th century opera star. And what would a star be without their entourage, a trio of strong male vocalists imploring her to grace the stage with her presence. Oh go on.

Switching it up again, fans of Elvis will love “Song of the King” from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Looking and sounding like something out of a show in Las Vegas the stage lights up with dancers clad in glittering gold Egyptian inspired costumes, this number is more than packed full of energy and pizazz.

Amanda Atlas. Photo by Wendy Riley

Amanda Atlas. Photo by Wendy Riley

You might not know the musical Whistle Down the Wind but if you’re a fan of 1990s Irish boy-band Boyzone, “No Matter What” is sure to fill you with delight. And if all of that wasn’t enough this number has some of the most adorable young performers take to the stage, they do Christchurch proud to have so much talent and grace at such a young age.

If you’ve always wanted to see CATS then you’ll be left wanting more as the stage is filled with perfectly costumed dancers leaping and flying about the stage as if they really were cats, while behind them the choir and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra tells a vivid story.

Photo by Wendy Riley

Donna Alley and Michael Bayly. Photo by Wendy Riley

This show is for you if you like any or all of the following; celebrity dancing shows, old school Hollywood glamour, ballet, contemporary dance, drama, comedy, flashy clothes, opera, classical music, escapism, love stories or really just a great night out. If you need a break away from the gloominess of a Christchurch winter then you’d really be sorry to miss this show. And while you’re at it make sure you get your tickets now for Showbiz Christchurch’s next production Miss Saigon because the people who brought you The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber really know how to put on a show.

We Will Rock You is the latest musical show to grace the stage of The Isaac Theatre Royal, and it keeps its promise, you will be rocked.

By Emma Dyer

We Will Rock You is a story about rebellion, set to the music of Queen, with outrageous futuristic or punk costumes, and an endless supply of music references and jokes. You don’t have to be a Queen fan but it definitely doesn’t hurt to be a fan of pop music culture because the jokes will be that much funnier. Exhibit Brit, a rather rough and tough male character who proudly identifies his full chosen name is “Britney Spears”. With gags like that you know that you’re in for a good time.

Listening to this show it isn’t hard to remember why they still call Freddie Mercury a genius. The range of songs that Queen has given the world is why the entire list of musical numbers [in the musical] can be made up of their work. There are 23 different Queen songs in this show, most of them so perfect a band would be lucky just to produce one in their career. While it would be hard to pick a favourite you could do worse than Killer Queen or the show closer (which they really make you beg for) Bohemian Rhapsody.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is just a bunch of jokes, excellent music, and more leather than a field full of cows. There is a serious message here. In a time where we are really questioning the massive amount of power that a few internet giants hold over our lives this really is a story of what the future could look like if we let it. It is outrageous and at times almost cartoonish, but it could be our future. The gags might take things to extremes, evil villain Killer Queen’s hair or the white and rather distressingly tight outfits of the “Gaga Kids”, but there is still a strong undercurrent of truth. For decades the music of Queen has been a part of our collective culture. The writer of this show, Ben Elton, knows a thing or two about pop culture, about making fun of it, and about becoming part of it. You might not be familiar with his name but you probably know his work on comedic classic TV series like “Blackadder” or “The Young Ones”. His joyful, playful, biting, and absurd sense of humour comes through in this show in a way that is delightful and eye-rolling at the same time.

Welcome to the “iPlanet” (Earth has been rebranded), where nobody communicates in real life, individuality is strongly discouraged, and live music is banned. On this planet we have the dreamer dude Galileo Figaro, played by Caleb Jago-Ward who looks remarkably like a young Bon Jovi. Then we have badass babe Scaramouche (and if you think that is a odd name or that you shouldn’t call her “babe”, well so does she) played by the fantastically talented Jane Leonard. What develops from here is a story of love story, of teenage rebellion, and of why it is important that music keeps being created for love not money. But where in another telling of this story Scaramouche could have been relegated to sitting on the sidelines cheering on the musical hero Galileo, that simply isn’t the case here. She’s tough, she fights for what she wants, she runs towards the danger, and she doesn’t take any condescending talk from anyone. Meanwhile Galileo spouts out musical lyrics that just appear in his head, with no idea what they mean, but excellent comedic timing (“Scaramouche will you do the fandango?” does not go down well with her).

For regular attendees to the theatre, used to seeing the orchestra or band tucked away under the stage, it might be quite the surprise to see them on a platform precariously high above the stage, as much a part of the show for the eyes as they are for the ears. Multiple electric guitars replace the usual violins or oboes. So that what you end up with is an awesome lineup of musicians playing  great songs in a very rock n’ roll way. Add to that the supporting ensemble singing and dancing to fill the stage with their energy and enthusiasm, not an easy feat in some of the skin tight costumes, and you have something that could easily be described as “a kind of magic”.

While the baddies are definitely bad they still are relatable. Who doesn’t want to be special? Killer Queen (played to nasty perfection by Naomi Ferguson)  just wants to be special by ensuring nobody else is. Her evil henchman Khashoggi (played by the excellent Jack Fraser), well he just wants to avoid having his brain fried by his boss. The usual office politics. And what about the goodies? Well they hang out in the run down beat up Hard Rock Cafe. They are a punk dressing group of bohemians including VHS wielding Buddy (as in Holly played by Aaron Boyce), outrageous Oz (as in Osbourne played by Catherine Hay) and her lover boy risk-taker Brit (as in Spears played by Tom Hart). So what do the Bohemians want? They want music, they don’t know what it is or what it sounds like or even how to play a VHS tape, but they know deep down in their souls it’s what they need. And in the end everyone needs that, we need music to keep us human, to make us think, cry, be angry, and to unwind. We Will Rock You is a promise kept of all that and more. Buy tickets, see the show, remember why you love music and life.

We Will Rock You, the Musical by Queen and Ben Elton, 29 March – 13 April 2019

As a reviewer I often get asked by friends or colleagues, “Was it really that good?” or, even better, “Is it worth me buying a ticket?”. My pre-emptive strike on this one is a resounding, “oh, yes!”. If you’ve seen the show already, you know what’s coming; if you haven’t, I suggest you book your tickets now because by the time word gets out, they’ll be in hot demand.

This is a first-class production brimming with hi-octane exuberance from start to finish, super-strong leads, an energetic young ensemble cast and a cracking band. Add to that the visual spectacle of a huge video screen and the show reaches a whole new stratospheric level. The show is wall-to-wall great music from one of the greatest rock bands ever, threaded together with the pithy, observational wit of Ben Elton as he takes a poke at the absurdities of modern life.

OK, so it is all assembled around a daft, rather irrelevant plot, but I doubt if anyone cares beyond the obvious downside that when you have a Killer Queen as good as Naomi Ferguson, you don’t get much of her in the second half.

For a first night it was immaculate, especially given the technology involved, so if there were any glitches, they were of the sort that only the tech crew would notice. Lighting and sound were faultless.

As the hits just kept coming, so did the laughs and I couldn’t believe that the time went by so quickly. Caleb Jago-Ward and Jane Leonard were excellent as Galileo and Scaramouche respectively, both fabulous singers singing what sounded like their ideal roles, belting out the big numbers but also pulling on the heartstrings with a touching Who Wants To Live Forever. Jago-Ward and Leonard both relished being front-and centre, making for a highly entertaining pairing.

Similarly, Bohemian couple Catherine Hay (Oz) and Tom Hart (Brit) injected pace, humour and gutsy vocals. Oz’s big moment came in No-One But You and the pair really rocked the house with I Want It All. Aaron Boyce was a suitably Ringo-esque Buddy, his moment in the sun being a well-taken These Are The Days Of Our Lives, while Jack Fraser made the part of archetypal Bond villain Khashoggi his own, as well as Seven Seas of Rhye.

As I’ve alluded to earlier on, one of the highlights of the show was Naomi Ferguson, commanding the stage in all her scenes, singing absolutely superbly throughout and making for a truly fearsome Killer Queen. Covering a wide vocal range across her songs, she powered through the big numbers – an outstanding vocal performance but also a gripping stage presence.

The show runs until April 13 – the opening night audience was on its feet at the end and having an absolute ball so here’s hoping for full houses for the rest of the season. As the title of the show suggests they will, indeed, rock you.

Reviewed by Kate Divett, Backstage Christchurch.

Friday 29 March

It is a deeply reflective time to be living in Christchurch currently, as we try to make sense of the events of Friday 15th March. We are a city in mourning and in shock. In the fortnight that has followed, we have gathered together in many ways – to grieve those who have been lost, to support those who remain, and in vigils for the peace and way of life we hold so dearly. Gatherings have been important.

Showbiz Christchurch thought deeply about whether or not to gather for the opening of their season of We Will Rock You. Their unanimous decision that “the show must go on” was the right one. I have personally found solace in the words of Leonard Bernstein this week: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before” and I held these words in my mind as I entered the theatre doors on Friday night.

So this is what the cast and crew of We Will Rock You have done: an exceptional, high energy, full noise and lights opening night, and an act of defiance against those who would want our lives interrupted. Bravo and thank you to all involved.

With the theatrical music of Queen woven together by the comedic writing of Ben Elton, it’s a winning combination. The story is set 300 years in the future, and the internet has destroyed any sense of community or individualism. Humans conform to mainstream, commercial ideals that are enforced, Big Brother-style, by Globalsoft Corporation. A small group of rebel Bohemians, however, are living counter to this tyranny, believing in a prophecy that a dreamer will come to help them find the last remaining musical instrument that has been hidden on the iPlanet. And there’s obviously a love story in there for good measure, which is brilliant.

Okay, the story might be a little bonkers, but we’re really here for the music – and we are not let down. At all. If the title of the show “We Will Rock You” was a promise, then Showbiz have definitely kept it. From the opening strains of ‘Innuendo’, we’re reminded that Queen’s music is intricate, lyrical, and incredibly well-known – especially in the recent success of 2018’s biographical film about Freddie Mercury, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The band set the tone for an epic night of rock immediately, and bravo in particular to Michael Ferrar and Heather Webb for their work on guitars. Brian May’s solos and breaks are some of the more recognisable in music history!

The night belonged to the two lead roles though. Caleb Jago-Ward (Galileo) is phenomenal – it’s actually difficult to adequately express how extraordinary his voice is.

It is a treat to see him throw himself into what must be a very fun role to perform and apply his vocal talent to. Every song was a winner. Jane Leonard (Scaramouche) is equally brilliant and a fabulous casting opposite Jago-Ward, bringing sass, feisty attitude and some great comic timing. I particularly enjoyed ‘Somebody To Love’, but the duet moments for these two singers – particularly in ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘Who Wants To Live Forever’ were magical.

Naomi Ferguson (Killer Queen) and Jack Fraser (Khashoggi) had reliably good performances as the evil counterparts to Galileo and Scaramouche. Ferguson, in particular, had a big role with a big personality to play – and a wig to match – and the vocal range required of her songs would be a challenge for most singers. We have Freddie Mercury to thank for that! Her costumes were wonderfully outrageous, and this is a good opportunity to congratulate Diane Brodie QSM (Costume) and Sarah Greenwood-Buchanan (Hair and Makeup) and their teams for their incredible work once again.

Aaron Boyce (Buddy), Catherine Hay (Oz), and Tom Hart (Brit) played excellent parts and contributed even more mouth-dropping vocal performances. I particularly noted that Hart’s voice at times sounded incredibly similar to Mercury’s, particularly in ‘I Want It All’. Hay and Hart have some very funny on-stage chemistry and brought wonderful comedic moments. Boyce plays a fabulous futuristic hipster, a great leader of the Bohemian group.

The cohesion of direction, musical, production and technical elements of this production is evident for all to see.

The Showbiz Christchurch team should be incredibly satisfied that they are doing their bit to serve the Christchurch community with high-quality moments of escape into the Arts when we need it most. The themes of the show – standing up for what you believe in, acceptance of difference, friendship, and the power of music to unify people – hold an added poignancy that could not have been predicted. The response from the audience on opening night – whooping, hollering, and generous applause throughout, followed by a joy-filled sing-a-long and an emphatic standing ovation – were all confirmation that this is a show that will add to our collective wellbeing. Audiences should secure their tickets before the season sells out and get ready to rock (yeah!).

The Showbiz Christchurch Saunders & Co Season of We Will Rock You is on from 29 March – 13 April at Isaac Theatre Royal.

Reviewed by Fiona S Giles, Theatreview 15 Sep 2018

If you already have your tickets for Showbiz Christchurch’s production of Les Misérables, then you are fortunate. If not, what are you thinking? Hurry while they are available. Les Mis, as it’s affectionately called, has run continuously in London since 1985 and toured globally. It is more than a musical, it’s a cultural phenomenon. Which it almost has no right to be.

Victor Hugo’s 1463 page epic (first published in 1862), spanning almost twenty years, depicts the struggles of the French poor against a brutal justice system, grinding poverty and prejudice. Hardly uplifting stuff. Add to that the doomed rebellion and the relentless hounding of noble pauper Jean Valjean by officer Javert and, on paper, it makes one wonder how the musical ever got off the ground.

But it works. It gets under your skin. The music is heart-stirring, the story grand and sweeping. There are characters to love, to hate, to pity and to laugh at. It has love, pain, despair, redemption, the whole roller coaster of human emotion condensed into two and a half hours. The musical is long, I admit, but the pace is unremitting, aided by a revolving stage that keeps the action ever flowing.

This is the story of Jean Valjean, a man released after 19 years hard labour for stealing bread, who reconstructs himself as a respectable town mayor and factory owner before inadvertently causing the downfall of the wretched Fantine. As atonement, he raises Fantine’s daughter Cosette as his own. Cosette falls in love with a young Revolutionary, whom Valjean protects for Cosette’s sake. Throughout it all Valjean is hunted by the morally inflexible policeman Javert.

Valjean carries the weight of the story on his shoulders and you need an incredible talent to carry the musical. Showbiz Christchurch has found that in Daniel Belle, a remarkably talented singer and performer. Belle brings a steady inner strength to his Valjean, a pride in his bearing throughout his journey from embittered convict to compassionate father. Belle’s singing is stunning, particularly in ‘Bring Him Home’, a song that rises to a breathtaking crescendo that has the audience whooping and cheering.

Javert is, by contrast, a man who doesn’t believe in redemption in this life. The law is black and white to Javert: only brutal justice can provoke good behaviour. It can be easy to slip into a wooden portrayal of this unyielding man, but James Foster plays Javert with personality and humanity. He is superb as Javert on the bridge, grappling with the knowledge that his world has utterly unravelled.

Fantine is the woman who is trying to support her daughter, broken down by an uncaring society, until, destitute and ill, she hits back. Saved from arrest by Valjean, she begs him to care for her Cosette. Kira Josephson plays a perfect Fantine. Her powerful, emotive voice holds the audience spellbound. Her eyes betray the unforgiving life she has suffered, her voice trembles with her pain.

Monique Clementson is a heartbreaking Eponine, the woman who hides her true feelings for Marius under a tomboyish mask. Her heartfelt rendition of ‘On My Own’ brings me to tears and the audience to a thunderous applause.

Jacqueline Doherty plays the adult Cosette for the naive sheltered girl she is. She and Fergus Inder’s idealistic and frankly oblivious student Marius make it believable that they could have fallen in love so quickly. Their courtship scene is played with great innocence against the brutality outside the gates, though I stifle a laugh when Marius seems to show superhuman strength by bending the iron bars as he squeezed through. Why not have made the gaps wider?

Ben Freeth and Rebecca Malcolm deserve special recognition for their portrayal of Monsieur and Madame Thénardier, a pair representing the more grotesque, grasping side of human nature. They bring an element of humour to a dark story without dipping too far into caricature.

Young locals Duncan Price and Isla Palmer are tonight’s Gavroche and Little Cosette. Both only nine years old, they have demanding roles yet seem to fill the stage with their presence: Palmer as the wide-eyed, sweet-voiced Cosette and Price as the brave and cheeky urchin Gavroche.

Without the stunning ensemble, Les Misérables is only a shell of a show. These dynamic performers clearly invest all of themselves into their characters, whether students, tavern-goers, prostitutes or prisoners. They fill the stage, each a unique presence, faces animated with emotion: a delight to watch. Their exceptional voices soar and are superbly complemented by the excellent live orchestra under the direction of Richard Marrett.

The costumes are impeccable. Diane Brodie QSM has outdone herself with the level of detail and professionalism that has gone into every piece, whether simple nightgown or military uniform. The lighting design is likewise excellent; moody and evocative, particularly in the sewer scene. I do find it too dark at times – some greater variation would take it from excellent to perfect.

As my companion and I walk out of the theatre – after a tumultuous applause and well deserved standing ovation – I hear someone behind me remark “What is it about this story that English-speakers love so much?” I would have to argue that it’s less the 19th Century Paris setting and more the eternal themes of striving against injustice, the idealism of youth, the plight of the poor and the redemptive power of love, combined with some of the most powerful and memorable songs ever written, that you can’t help but keep singing to yourself long after the show is over.

Reviewed by Georgia Kate Heard, What’s Up Christchurch

Showbiz Christchurch has taken on their biggest challenge yet, bringing the epic Les Miserables to the Isaac Theatre Royal. Their bold move has paid off, according to self-proclaimed Les Miserables fan Georgia Kate Heard, who felt our local talent brought a Broadway standard performance to a Christchurch stage. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to “hear the people sing”!

Les Miserables is a musical that needs no introduction.

This couldn’t have been more evident than when the curtain lifted on The Isaac Theatre Royal stage revealing the iconic image of a man passionately waving the red flag of revolution, bathed in the colours of the French flag. That single image of a man, accompanied by the rousing, full bodied sound of a live orchestra, was a promise to the audience. A promise that the Les Miserables we know and love is going to be honoured, celebrated and given the professional treatment, that a musical of this magnitude deserves.

This stirring opening tableau was so instantly recognisable it felt like rushing to embrace a long lost and dearly loved relative. This iconic stage picture was enough to elicit spontaneous, excited audience cheers, before the show had really begun!

I have never experienced such tangible audience anticipation in a New Zealand theatre-going experience. In my time seeing musical theatre on Broadway, I regularly encountered impassioned American punters applauding as the curtain lifted on a popular musical. The Broadway crowd were often hooting and hollering for the celebrity that they were eagerly awaiting. As this more reserved Christchurch audience began cheering, it struck me that we too were eagerly anticipating a celebrity, the celebrity being the musical giant that is Les Miserables!

I will openly proclaim that Les Miserables is my favourite musical of all time. Therefore my expectations and demands on what I needed from this production were sky high. To my relief and astonishment Showbiz Christchurch more than delivered on their promise; they exceeded my highest expectations!

Showbiz Christchurch are going from strength to strength. Showbiz has become synonymous with world class musical theatre, right here in Christchurch. This epic tale of a Parisian revolutionary, reborn in musical form to become one of London’s longest running and most popular shows has been translated into 21 languages and toured 42 countries, and now the talented thespians and singers of Otautahi have transported the magic and passion to the Isaac Theatre Royal. The Showbiz team proved once and for all they are producing shows of an international standard.

Showbiz Christchurch’s Les Miserables is simply superb. The dynamic duo of Director Stephen Robertson and musical director Richard Marrett are as iconic in staging musical theatre as the popular musicals themselves. Robertson has directed Les Miserables three times for Showbiz Christchurch and this feels like the finely tuned, assured accomplishment of a man who lives and breathes musical theatre. The sound that Marrett achieves with both the orchestra and the performers is second to none. The orchestra sound like a perfectly choreographed dance, that is a show within itself. The sound achieved on stage, in particular the male chorus, is breathtaking. The powerful and passionate, sound of the male ensemble on more than one occasion literally made my bottom jaw drop, and there is no greater compliment from me.

In such a slick, polished production, where every element hit the right note, its incredibly hard to single out individual performances and accomplishments. But for me there were some standouts who cannot go unmentioned.

Ben Freeth initially felt like unusual casting for the role of Thenadier, the crooked and devilish inn keeper, or master of the house. However Ben completely won myself and the audience over, with his corrupt, contorted characterisation. I couldn’t take my eyes off his full body commitment to this character, where every fibre in Ben’s body, right down to his fingers were fizzing with the twisted energy of this watchable villain.

Kira Josephson’s moving portrayal of the smaller, but deeply memorable role of the devoted mother Fantine, is stunning. Kira’s performance of “I dreamed a Dream” completely embodied the overwhelming theme of suffering and sacrifice. If you didn’t feel something while watching her pour her heart into that part, I suggest you might be emotionally moribund!

Daniel Belle as the protagonist Valjean largely carries the weight of the show’s success on his back. Daniel is a gift to Christchurch audiences and his portrayal of this iconic character is not to be missed. What Daniel achieves with this hugely vocally demanding roll, is nothing short of a tour de force of singing! During Daniel’s delicate falsetto notes in the haunting melodies of “Bring Him Home”, you could have heard a pin drop.

Marius the romantic male lead, played by Fergus Inder was everything you crave from this role; tender, dreamy, every note nailed, emotionally rich and handsome to boot.

Jack Fraser as Enjolras packed a hugely powerful punch. Jack’s impeccable diction and clear vibrant tone cut through the smoke-haze filled air like vocal bullets.

James Foster (Javert) received a huge applause after every song, and deservedly so. His rich and centred tones were a steady, regimental metronome for the show. He played the role with sincerity and layers of depth that are often missed in this part.

I never like to single out favourites, but nine year old Duncan Price, all but stole the spotlight in his scenes, playing the cheeky, endearing Gavroche! I can guarantee that on this opening night, a star was born! Jack tread the boards of that stage with the confidence, courage and conviction of an experienced man, well beyond his years. I was completely blown away by Jack’s natural acting ability and comic timing. This young man is one to watch!

Allan Lees Oam’s set is a wonder to behold, and Grant Robertson’s atmospheric lighting, compliments it perfectly.

Les Miserables is a timeless tale, with classic themes of redemption, greed, betrayal, camaraderie, enduring love, and sacrifice. There is something for everyone in this show. It has no musical theatre fluff; all the fat has been trimmed and all that’s left is a piece of prime theatre to experience.

The opening night received a full standing ovation, with many, including myself and even the discerning elderly gentlemen in front of me, wiping away tears from their eyes.

“To love another person is to see the face of god”. I can’t think of a more relevant message, in any time, than love and acceptance of our fellow man. This show is a hugely impactful glimpse into the human experience and a glorious production that deserves no empty chairs!