March 20, 2019

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  • ‘Les Miserables’ links revolutionary France, Egypt

    "Master of the House" Monsieur Thernardier (Sheirf Rizkallah), Madame Thernardier (Rita Achkar) and Eponine (Nesma Mahgoub) in a scene from "Les Miserables" in Arabic staged at AUC last week. (Photo courtesy Amira Gabr)

    BY DALIA BASIOUNY Cairo – Few performances can move their audience emotionally, while engaging them artistically and intellectually. But some very lucky Cairenes had the opportunity this week, watching highlights from the renowned musical “Les Miserable” at The American University in Cairo (AUC). The remarkable performance was presented in Arabic for the first time late last week at the Malak Gabr theater.

    The successful Broadway musical “Les Miserable” by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil is based on Victor Hugo’s powerful novel about poverty, injustice and the struggle against oppression, set during the 1932 student revolt against the French monarchy.

    The Egyptian adaptation of this musical is a collaboration between translator, theater critic and director Sarah Enany, music director Neveen Allouba and director Mohamed Abul Kheir. But it isn’t the first collaboration between this incredibly talented creative team which was behind the sole Arabic offering of Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in 2010-11.

    The creative team worked with a gifted cast of young singers, many of them students at AUC. Allouba trained them vocally and led them musically with precision, grace and finesse. The triumph of this performance was indeed in the talent and appeal of the performers, and the strength of the music composition. The 20-strong cast was accompanied only by the playing of superior pianist Rosalie Capps.

    Mohamed Abou El Kheir opted for simplicity in the set design, using an empty stage, with three levels of risers at the back, and relying on atmospheric lighting to indicate changes in location and mood.

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    But the true star of the show was the translation of Sarah Enany, herself a theater and film director and opera singer. Enany’s Arabic lyrics illustrated the power, beauty and splendor of colloquial Egyptian. Her talent as a writer was clear in the range of diction she used. Enany was comfortable moving from the profound to the profane to capture the essence of Alain Boublil’s lyrics while tapping into the soul of the Egyptian revolution, connecting the struggles of the oppressed across time and place.

    Unlike other translated operas, “Les Miserable” did not sound foreign and did not feel translated as Enany was able to find the perfect parallels in Egyptian Arabic to the original lyrics, without altering the music.

    For those who know the original musical (recently popularized by a 2012 film production) the joys of this performance were doubled. Not only were they able to enjoy the powerful story of love, triumph, defeat, and overcoming, but they could also connect the lyrics they were hearing in Egyptian Arabic to the original songs they know, and appreciate even more the prowess, ingenuity and wit of the Arabic lyrics.

    The 75-minute performance presented highlights from the musical, capturing the essence of the story. Among them was the moving song “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” (Yally sherebto fee yom ma’aya) about those who lost their lives for the revolution. It brought many audience members to tears as the touching lyrics and warm voice of Steven Labat evoked memories of the martyrs.

    Classic crowd-pleaser “Master of the House” (Saheb el Makan) was hilarious. The audience roared with laughter, partly because of Sherif Rizkallah’s physical comedy, but mainly at the witty lyrics that dug deep into the essence of colloquial Egyptian and street slang to capture the sheer crassness and brazen vulgarity of the innkeeper.

    “Using the language of everyday life makes this work a living breathing theatrical production accessible to a far broader audience base,” says Enany, “including illiterate and underprivileged communities, instead of preserving the elitist and somewhat antiquated restrictions that have alienated Egyptian and Arab audiences from Western musical theater in general and opera in particular for far too long.”

    The students’ song resonating with optimism wraps up the performance. Although many have fallen, the revolution will never die, they belted out in “Same’ sot el gamaheer..tale’ yenadi bel tagheer”.

    Enany was able to weave some of the slogans from the Egyptian revolution into the lyrics, where they fit perfectly with the storyline and the music bringing home the fact that the demands of the oppressed are the same across time: bread, freedom and justice.

    The lyrics of the last song were also included in the program allowing the audience to sing along for a new dawn, one that conquers injustice. An energized, jubilant audience crooned “oul wi ghanni be’ala sout…laa mosh hanseeb el thawra temout” (sing it loud we will not let the revolution die!).

    At the end of “Les Miserable”, the full house shook with the thunderous applause of the audience, while the final encore gave them a chance to join in, channeling the powerful energy that was transmitted to them throughout the performance, in a chant for a better tomorrow.

    This labor of love by the volunteer creative team and the inspired cast and crew was an exciting artistic experience you must catch if it’s ever staged again. How often do you get to watch “Les Miserable”, Egyptian Arabic style?

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