Sunday, September 15, 2019

Review of Upstart's COMPANY: Sondheim's Social Sensibilities

September 15, 2019

There are three Stephen Sondheim musicals in the local theater scene now. There is his 1994 musical "Passion" presented by the Philippine Opera Company, and coming up in October is his 1979 dark masterpiece "Sweeney Todd" to be presented by Atlantis. In contrast to those two period pieces, this show "Company" staged by Upstart is Sondheim's 1970 musical about the social mores of New Yorkers contemporary to that time. 

Bobby is celebrating his 35th birthday. His friends, all couples either married or living in, throw a party for him. From that framing device, the show would go into vignettes of Bobby visiting each of these couples (Harry and Sarah, Peter and Susan, David and Jenny, Paul and Amy and Joanne and Larry) and getting insights from them about marriage. We will also meet the three ladies with whom Bobby had romantic affairs.

OJ Mariano held his ground as the central character of the show Bobby, a man in his mid-thirties who still grappled with commitment issues as all his friends were all already married or engaged. His male friends all envied his freedom, as he looked for that perfect girl who had the best qualities of his female friends, Mariano was able to project that smooth bachelor vibe and spirit. Bobby's final anthem "Being Alive" is one of my favorite songs of all time, and the main reason why I went to watch this show. Seeing it sung by Mariano in its proper context made the hefty ticket price worth it.

Finale Ultimo
(photo credit: Phil Fernando)

Joel Trinidad and Sweet Plantado-Tiongson played Harry and Sarah, who could not discipline themselves from their addictions. Ariel Reonal and Nicki Trivino played Peter and Susan, who seemed to have it all but with surprising plans. Chino Veguillas and Bianca Lopez played David and Jenny, seemingly mismatched but fit perfectly. James Uy and Cathy Azanza-Uy played Paul and Amy, long engaged but still with wedding jitters. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Michael Williams played Joanne and Larry, all jaded with their wealth and age. Of Bobby's three girlfriends, Maronne Cruz played the kittenish April, Jill Pena played the reserved Kathy and Caisa Borromeo played the bohemian Marta. 

There were three particularly memorable performances from this all-star ensemble. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo got to sing that acerbic and judgmental song "Ladies Who Lunch" and infused it with explosive drunken angst. Cathy Azanza-Dy was cheerful and bubbly even as she plowed through the tongue-twisting monster of a song "(Not) Getting Married Today" which also featured the soaring soprano of Bianca Lopez (of the Phil. Madrigal Singers). Maronne Cruz also stood out as the dim-witted stewardess April as her slinky and sexy voice and moves to seduce Bobby surely made temperatures rise in that auditorium. 

The cast at the curtain call
(photo credit: Phil Fernando)

Director Topper Fabregas decided to strip everything down to basics, so the audience can just focus on the actors and the material. The presentation area of the Maybank Performing Arts Theater was rearranged so that there is a central elevated stage (designed by Joey Mendoza) and the audience are seated all around it. This meant there were actors who may have their backs to you in certain scenes, not always easy to follow. There were no furniture on the stage except benches which the actors pushed around to fit the scene. Musical director Rony Fortich led the musicians to play the score live, which is always a good thing, especially for a Sondheim musical.

Based on my personal experience here, I think where you are seated will affect how well you hear the words. The Tony award-winning witty dialogue (by George Furth) and song lyrics (by Sondheim) are the prime meat of this show, so it felt bad that I could not grasp all of them properly from where I was seated in seat 1 of row D in the balcony. (I just walked in to buy a ticket just before the show began and I guess that was the best they could give me in that section at that time.) I can see the show pretty well which was fine, but unfortunately I cannot hear everything that well the whole time. 


"COMPANY" runs only for two weekends, from September 13 to 22, 2019 at the Maybank Performance Arts Center in Bonifacio Global City. Show times are 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are sold at ₱3,500, ₱3,100, ₱2,500, ₱1,800 and ₱1,500. The show runs almost three hours long with a 15 minute intermission.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Review of POC's PASSION: Obsequious Obsession

September 15, 2019

I had seen Stephen Sondheim's "Passion" back in 1996 with Menchu Lauchengco in the lead role as Fosca, Michael Williams as Giorgio and Gia Macuja as Clara. I remembered that I liked it and the beautiful but rather somber songs, but I cannot entirely recall all the details of the story anymore. This year, for their 20th anniversary, the Philippine Opera Company decided to stage "Passion" again. This is actually the first full production of the POC that I had seen.

"Passion" tells the story of a love triangle set in the late 1800s with handsome gallant soldier Capt. Giorgio Bachetti caught between his lustful beautiful paramour Clara, and his obsessively infatuated homely hostess Fosca. Sondheim created a situation which began to be apparently so clear cut. However, he gave it a twisty development of events which will keep the audience entranced as the unconventional love affairs unfold onstage.

Sondheim told the story with challenging songs rich in melody and romance. The first song "Happiness" was sung by a barely-dressed Giorgio and Clara while making love in bed, quite a bold manner to start a show with. In "Loving You," Fosca declares to Giorgio that her love for him was so strong that she was willing to die for him, a kind of love that the young man cannot yet grasp. It is easy to understand why this was the best-known and best-loved song from this show.

Giorgio and Fosca
(photo from FB page of Karla Gutierrez)

It was as if I was watching the show for the first time. I did not realize there was so much dark humor, not only among the comic soldiers, but in the lines of Fosca herself, which I found very surprising. I remembered Fosca to be desperate, but not as insidiously manipulative as Shiela Valderrama-Martinez portrayed her last night. Her heavenly singing voice was beautifully radiant, shining though the severely deglamorizing make-up and drab gowns she had on. On her 25th anniversary in show business, Valderrama-Martinez is the theater star of the season, and this Fosca of hers is a high point in her career.

Vien King makes his leading man debut as Giorgio. At first, King seemed too young to be the heroic Capt. Giorgio. Because of his youthful countenance, Giorgio's dalliances with Clara and Fosca looked like May-December affairs, which gave these liaisons another layer of danger and recklessness. This relative youth of King's Giorgio actually worked in the show's favor, since it gave context to the decisions Giorgio made, which may be puzzling if made by a more mature man. His singing was solid throughout, showcased in songs like "Is This What You Call Love?" That scene when Giorgio had his confused epiphany was a major acting moment for King that drew spontaneous applause from the audience. 

With her Caucasian features and colorful costumes, Jasmine Fitzgerald was a standout beauteous vision onstage as Clara. Her clear soprano vocals completed the total package. Lorenz Martinez played a key role as Fosca's compassionate physician, Dr. Tambourri. Raul Montesa was solid presence in his role as Fosca's cousin and guardian Col. Ricci. Noel Rayos stole his scenes as the funny Lt. Toraso, along with the Timothy Racho as the cook Sgt. Lombardi. Jonel Mojica, Jos Jalbuena, Lorenzo Mendoza, Vyen Villanueva, Joshua Rex Cheng, Lorraine Lisen and Jasmin Salvo complete the ensemble. 

The cast of Passion at their curtain call
(L-R: Lorenz Martines, Raul Montesa, Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, 
Vien King, Jasmine Fitzgerald, Noel Rayos)

The vision of director Robbie Guevara gave his show a lush feel brimming with complex emotions. Sets were designed by Jason Paul Tecson, enhanced by the lighting of Shakira Villa Symes. The 18th century Italy costumes were designed by Zenaida T. Gutierrez, with Myrene Santos completing the picture with her hair and make-up. The sound design was by Jojit Tayong. Guevara's resident musical director at 9Works Daniel Bartolome also leads the live orchestra in this production. Congratulations to POC Artistic Director Ms. Karla Gutierrez for the successfully steering POC into their 20th anniversary. 


"PASSION" runs from September 14-29, 2019 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza in Makati. Show times are 8 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices range from ₱3,500, ₱2,500, ₱2,000, ₱1,500 and ₱900. Show lasts for 1 hour and 50 minutes with no intermission.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review of Twin Bill's DANCING LESSONS: Courage to Change

August 22, 2019

Twin Bill had been choosing to stage plays with dark, taboo or similarly sobering subject matter since they began as a theater production company in 2012.  "Dog Sees God" was about bullying and depression. "Suicide Incorporated" was about suicide. "My Name is Asher Lev" was about conflict between artistry and religion. "Wit" was about cancer. This new play of theirs, Mark St. Germain's "Dancing Lessons" may have lightened up a little but still tackled another serious topic -- autism. 

Ever Montgomery was a college professor previously diagnosed to have Asperger's Syndrome, on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Ever since childhood, he had suffered an irrational fear of being touched, even by his own mother.  Senga Quinn was a dancer on Broadway who was sidelined by a serious knee injury that necessitated her to wear a leg brace. When Ever was invited to attend an important dinner-dance party, he decided to seek Senga's help to teach him how to dance. 

Pena and Villarama as Senga and Ever
(photo by Jaypee Maristaza, from Twin Bill FB Page)

This was a play about going outside your comfort zone and daring to face change. Ever Montgomery had been living his same humdrum day-to-day existence with zero social intimacy since his childhood. But now, forced to attend social gathering for which he could not be absent, Ever was faced with the daunting challenge of conquering his biggest fears, and since it involved social interaction, he knew he could not do it himself. 

For this lead role, Randy Villarama went over beyond all those minor roles I had seen him in before to inhabit this specially demanding role. He kept in character the whole time, from his empty gaze which looked beyond Senga, to those repetitive nervous twitches in his hand, his constant fixing of his belt buckle, to his mile-a-minute enumerations of complex statistics. His initial lousy attempts to move to a Rihanna song were hilarious. His successful attempts to break through his constricting psychiatric shackles were uplifting. 

For Senga, at first, teaching Ever to dance was just an easy way to earn a thousand dollars. She was brash and angry at the world, wallowing in her own self-pity because of her injury in one leg. She was an alcoholic and a junkie on pain meds. Later, their relationship evolved to things other than dancing. Senga essentially transitioned into becoming a therapist to draw Ever out of the fears that imprisoned him psychologically. In the same breath that she was healing him, she was being healed herself.

I had heard the name of Jill Pena in the ensemble of several plays I had watched before, but honestly this is the first time that I am solidly putting a face to her name. As Senga, Pena fluidly went through her character's arc with sensitivity and warmth, subtly breaking down the defenses she walled herself behind since her debilitation. She had to change first before Ever could change. It was her own change that led to Ever's change. Pena had us believing that her Senga could have such a significant effect on a man like Ever.

Baylocon, Villarama, Pena, Garcia at their curtain call

The set design of Kayla Teodoro was a single circular raised platform with a ramp that led to a solid door on the backdrop on which key points were being flashed. The all-wood set pieces with the lighting design of Joseph Matheu imparted a sense of warmth. The dancing of Marielle Joy Baylocon and Al Bernard Garcia, as choreographed by JM Cabling, reflected the exhilaration of Senga and Ever's spirits beyond their physical limitations. Kudos to Twin Bill co-founder and artistic director Francis Matheu for leading his team through this fulfilling emotional and psychological journey. 


DANCING LESSONS runs for only 6 shows: August 16-17, then 21-24, 2019 with only one show a day at 8 am. Show runs for only 1-1/2 hours, with no intermission. Venue is at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, Level 2 Circuit Lane, Circuit Makati. Tickets prices at P1550 and P750. Parental advisory: certain scenes touch on sexuality. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Review of Tanghalang Ateneo's DOLOROSA: Females of Fortitude

August 17, 2019

It was Holy Week 2003 and three sisters meet up in their old house in Laguna to assemble their family heirloom -- an award-winning vintage statue of Our Lady of Sorrows (whom they fondly called Dolorosa).  Before their mother Pilar went abroad and left them to fend for themselves, she left the hands with the youngest Juliana, the torso with middle child Alicia and the head and accessories with the eldest Claudia.

Before Pilar arrived home in Act 3, we are taken on two trips to the past. In Act 1, we go the the year 1883 and meet the girls' great grandfather Mariano Madrillano, as well as his dutiful wife Elena. In Act 2, we go to the year 1943 and meet Pilar as a young girl who just experienced her menarche. In both of these episodes, we were introduced to these headstrong women who were unafraid to stand for what they wanted for themselves in a world so much against their favor. 

Teenage Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo) and Elderly Pilar (Bibeth Orteza)

While Act 1 was a rather straightforward historical period piece about the creation of the Dolorosa alongside the birth of the revolution, Act 2 tackled a myriad of different issues and took a radical turn into the bizarre. From beliefs and superstitions about a girl's first menstrual period, the script turned to sexual behavior of young girls in the 1940s; from physical abuse to sexual abuse, all at the hands of men. Then it went to more eccentric, even outlandish topics from Good Friday public crucifixion rites, to simultaneous visions of multiple Virgin Marys, to astral projections to a limbo called "The Neither". The characters broke the fourth wall and critiqued the male playwright himself for daring to write about the struggle of women in a male-dominated world.

Act 3 tied all these past stories with the present situation of elderly Pilar and her three adult children. Pilar's sudden abandonment of her children to go live abroad after her husband's death created a strained relationship between her and her daughters. The tension of this sudden reunion after 15 years of separation made for a lively and brutal family bull session when all the daughters' pressing questions were finally out in the open and answered by their mother (or did she?). The tradition of headstrong women in this family was in full display here, and the fireworks were both noisy and brilliant. 

Elena (Claudia Enriquez) and Mariano (Capinding)

Aside from veterans Bibeth Orteza (as elderly Pilar) and Ron Capinding (as Mariano), all the other actresses in the cast had two or more roles to play, each with distinctive personalities. Claudia Enriquez played both self-deprecating eldest daughter Claudia and her defiant great-grandmother Elena. Bowie Gutierrez played both the angry middle daughter Alicia and her subservient grandmother Victoria. Zoe de Ocampo played both butch youngest daughter Juliana and her abused mother Pilar as a teenager. All these main actors were impressive, always fully in character with perfect line deliveries. This was the first time I saw Orteza as an actress onstage, and she captured the character of elderly Pilar quite well, both her strong and strange aspects. 

The girls (Dani Capinding, Francesca dela Cruz, Kat Dizon, Kim Donato) and one guy (Shaun Ervin Ocrisma, in a case of gender twist casting) who played Pilar's friends (all named after visionaries, real and reel) were also playing the various personas of Mother Mary in the Litany (Mystical Rose, Star of the Sea, Seat of Wisdom, Mirror of Justice and Tower of Ivory). Sabrina Basilio played Chedeng, (Elena's activist friend) and Mitring (Victoria's favored fish vendor). In another gender twist, female AJ Umali played three male roles, namely Mariano's patron Padre Galliano, Pilar's father Pablo, and faith healer Tasyo. 

Teenage Pilar (Zoe de Ocampo) and her mother Victoria (Bowie Gutierrez)

Act 3 of this play was first performed as a staged reading at the Virgin Labfest last year, and now it has expanded into this present form with three acts. This was an audacious piece of theater lasting all of three hours, one hour per act (with two 10-minute intermissions). It is in English with occasional interjections in Filipino, Spanish and Japanese. It is not easy to hold the audience's attention that long unless the material was compelling and the director was able to mount and pace the story well. I felt it succeeded in both points. Playwright Peter Mayshle came up with an epic story and script involving three generations of women and director Jenny Jamora expertly guided us through with her vision. 

The lighting design of D Cortezano was so important in a play like this. The Doreen Black Box theater of the Arete was really pitch black inside when all the lights were turned off. The sound design of Arvy Dimaculangan was rich and atmospheric, without being obtrusive. Benjamin Padero and Carlo Tajibe created a set design with two stages at opposite ends of the performance area, and an open space in between them. Because of this, there were limitations in what a viewer can see depending on where he was sitting. 

Claudia Enriquez, Zoe De Ocampo and Bowie Gutierrez during the curtain call

While I liked it as a whole, I feel this play may not for everybody. Aside from grappling with its length, some viewers may either be overwhelmed with its scope, misunderstand its messages or perceive it to be feeling self-important about its feminist agenda. With all of its complexities, the experimental Act 2 is most difficult to take in and can be polarizing. It is this act which will make or break the play for the individual viewer. I applaud the ambition and effort to craft a challenging and provocative project this complex and epic for the local stage, tackling Filipina womanhood in spheres of history, religion, politics and society.  It is an apt choice to be the maiden offering of Tanghalang Ateneo's Season 41 dubbed "The Women's Season" dedicated to championing the female spirit.


DOLOROSA runs from August 16- 31, 2019 at the Doreen Black Box Theater at the third floor of the Arts Wing of the Arete in Ateneo de Manila campus in Quezon City. Showtime is at 7:30 pm on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays  with 2:30 pm matinees on Saturdays. Tickets are at P450 for Ateneo students and P500 for the general public.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Review of PhilStagers' SINDAK 1941: Harrowing Hostilities

August 15, 2019

Like how last year's "Supremo Redux" was a reworking of "Bonifacio: Isang Sarsuwela," this 18th season production of the Philippine Stagers Foundation entitled "Sindak 1941" is a reworking of their 2014 musical "Filipinas 1941". The basic outline of the plot about two Filipino brothers during World War II remained intact but with some notable revisions. 

Important details like the Death March, comfort women and the Hukbalahap movement were still integrated in the story. However, some historical figures who were characters in the original play like Manuel L. Quezon and Jose P. Laurel were not anymore included in this new version. Instead focus was trained only on ordinary Filipinos, their travails and their grassroots heroism to overcome adversities. 

There was also a shocking major revelation of an erstwhile unknown information about US Gen. Douglas McArthur which would give his celebrated "I shall return!" promise a controversial asterisk. This critical detail was unearthed while writer Atty. Vince Tanada was doing further research into World War II topics in Japan. 

The story was the two Dimaculangan brothers, Felipe and Nestor. Felipe sacrificed his own education and worked as a school janitor to send his kid brother to school. Nestor was a brilliant student who went into the shoe-making business after graduation. When Japan attacked the country in 1941, the paths of the two brothers parted ways. While one went up the mountains to become a guerrilla warrior, the other collaborated with the Japanese in order to get into their good favor. 

Like in all the other major Stagers plays I had seen before, founder and moving spirit Atty. Vince Tanada was director and directed as well as lead actor. Tanada attacked the role of Felipe with his signature flamboyance and theatricality that his millennial fans eat up and love. His tenor singing voice was stronger than ever as the notes he was singing soared way above everyone else onstage. (Patrick Libao and Jomar Bautista alternate as Felipe.)

Johnrey Rivas played the rich and cocky younger brother Nestor whose efforts to keep his own family secure took him down an unpopular path. Rivas had risen up the ranks of the Stagers to lead roles as his acting and singing improved with each play and musical he joined. (Patrick Libao also alternates as Nestor.)

Vean Olmedo played Sofia, the school teacher who was Felipe's inspiration. This was a harrowing role to play, as Sophia's beauty attracted the lustful attention of a cruel Japanese officer and she was held captive and suffered much from this monstrous slavery. (Yesh Anne Burce and Kath Medina alternate as Sofia.) 

Rachel Penaflor played Emilia, Nestor's classmate, who became his doctor, then his wife. Penaflor just joined the Stagers Summer Workshop a couple of years back, and now she is playing second lead. Her beautiful classically-trained soprano voice, sparkling and solid, definitely shone here. (Cherry Bagtas alternates as Emilia.)

Kuya Manzano played Gen. MacArthur. This was his first project with the Stagers and my first time seeing him in a role that was not a Spanish soldier or friar. (Frannie Zamora, Joel Molina and Chris Lim alternate as MacArthur. This was the role that earned Lim an Aliw Award for Best Featured Actor.) Bea Martin played the role of MacArthur's sexy blonde girl-Friday Col. Cromwell. 

Adelle Ibarrientos and OJ Bacor played the whorehouse madams Mauricia and Salvacion. Chin Ortega played the demented mute street wanderer Tata Edong, who spoke clearly to us as narrator of events. The role of the child Pancho used to be the grandson of Tata Edong in the original play, but this time Pancho was the son of a guerrilla fighter Gorio. Dean Rafols played Pancho and Jomar Bautista played Gorio. Chris Lim played the sadistic Japanese officer Masanobu. 

Penaflor, Rivas, Tanada and Olmedo lead the cast at the curtain call.

Like all Stagers play before this, Tanada knowingly uses an energetic and youth-oriented uniquely style of performance to drive his message home to his hard-to-please young audience who had probably never seen a play before. Every song is a big production number with cast members singing and dancing in unison in all parts of the stage. There were some jokes for comic relief and romantic scenes for "kilig" thrills. The finale is a strong patriotic statement, complete with the red, white and blue colors, yellow stars and a sun formed in the background. 

The Stagers are an untiring and dedicated group of theater artists. They have been playing "Sindak" with all its difficult songs (music by Pipo Cifra and lyrics by Vince Tanada) and gut-wrenching emotions four full shows a day (a punishing 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm and 5 pm schedule) for five or more consecutive days a week. No other local theater company can boast of such a schedule. 

While others may call their style unsophisticated and low-brow, this signature popular style of telling stories from history was what endeared the Stagers and their plays to the college students for whom they perform. These shows inculcate in the young audience love and loyalty for the motherland and hopefully, also ignite in them an interest in watching or even performing in theater. 


"Sindak 1941" is being shown in SM North EDSA and other venues all over Metro Manila and key cities all over the country since July 2019, and will run up to March 2020. These shows can fill up the whole theater, mostly with students from an entire school. For schedule of performances. check out the Phil. Stagers website, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Review of Sandbox / 9Works' DANI GIRL (2019): Oncologic Odyssey

August 11, 2019

Cancer is a devastating disease to have. At any age, when you hear this diagnosis from your doctor, your world just crumbles down around you.  When a child gets cancer, the sense of tragedy is doubled. This little one had just begun his life and now he has to fight so hard and endure a lot of pain just to keep alive. As parents of a child with cancer, you'd want to do anything just to make your baby recover, even if it meant trading places with him.

Americans Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond wrote a music, book and lyrics of this musical about a child Dani Lyons who had a relapse of her leukemia after a remission of three years. Much to the chagrin of her harried mother Katherine, Dani used her fertile imagination a lot to keep her spirits up during her hospitalization for chemotherapy. At first, she only had her stuffed toys and guardian angel Raph to play games with. Later, she would have a boy roommate, a fellow cancer patient named Marty to play even more games with. 

The play is a very vivid peek into the inner workings of a child cancer patient's mind -- asking all the troubling questions that are bothering her. Foremost of these questions was "Why is Cancer?" -- a question no one seemed to have the answer for. This was the impossible question that triggered Dani to go on her odyssey to reach Heaven in order for God Himself to give her pressing answers she sought. 


The performance of 21 year-old Rebecca Coates as 9 year-old Dani was fascinating to watch. She really seemed like a child, scared, lost and confused over what was happening to her. Her singing was pure and crystalline in songs like "Invocation," "My Hair" and "Requiem for a Bear" (my personal favorite song of the show). Coates already played this role five years ago when Sandbox first staged this show to much acclaim (which I missed). This time, she still owned this challenging role, shifting from frenetically energetic one scene to sickly weak the next. 

Luigi Quesada played Marty, the boy who shared Dani's adventures of discovery. His best song was "Why I Loved the Movies" which talked about his obsession about his movie heroes Indiana Jones and Clark Kent, and how they don't live in fear. His chemistry with Coates was best seen in "Going to Heaven," a spectacular number with all its fun Star Wars references, complete with a light saber battle. 

Their alternates as Dani and Marty are actual child singer-actors Felicity Kyle Napuli (debuted 2016 Rep's "A Little Princess", played lead 2017 in Atlantis' "Matilda", then went international 2018 in "The Lion King") and Daniel Drilon (debuted 2014 as lead in Rep's "Pinocchio"). Their shows promise a totally different, probably more heartbreaking viewing experience given the proximity of their ages to the characters they play. 

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, Lorenz Martinez, Becca Coates and Luigi Quesada
at their curtain call

Lorenz Martinez played multiple characters like Raph the guardian angel, Cancer the bad guy, Dani's father, God, and a slew of others, challenging him to give each character a distinct personality. Others worked, others did not. These overlapping roles are not always easy to figure out which, may be confusing for viewers, especially the younger ones. (Julienne Mendoza alternates in this role, and given his known versatility, it should be interesting to see how he attacks the various roles.)

Shiela Valderrama-Martinez plays Katherine, Dani's steadfast but loving mother. Martinez is celebrating her 25th anniversary this year, and she has several shows lined up this second half of 2019 ("Binondo," "Dani Girl," "Passion" and "Adarna"). Her vocal highlight here was a ballad that conveyed a mother's pain -- "The Sun Still Rose." (Pam Imperial alternates in this role.)


Director Toff de Venecia led his talented technical crew to bring this play to life. The story may have just been set inside a hospital room, but the set (by Faust Peneyra) and video projections (Joee Mejias) brought us to other areas of action, from the inner organs of a teddy bear, to outer space, and all the way to heaven. Peneyra's backdrop with the central black hole given three-dimensional depth by concentric lights was a triumph of innovative stage design. 

Lighting director Miggy Panganiban's highlight was that final scene of Dani seemingly floating in a dark abyss with twinkling lights -- beautiful.  It was too bad that I could not see a clear beam of colored light emanating from the ends of the light sabers during that fight scene between the kids and Cancer. This detracted somewhat from what could have been an exciting, visually arresting scene, especially with the nifty sci-fi sound effects by Glendfford Malimban

Stephen Vinas did the choreography. Myrene Santos designed the hair and makeup. Ejay Yatco is the musical director, leading a spare ensemble of three musicians on keyboard, cello and percussions. 


This show talked some seriously mature subject matter, disguised in the form of children "games". Dani would play several morbid games, like pretending her stuffed animals were dying of various forms of cancer as she sung their requiems. Later, she would even let her beloved teddy bear Mr. Fritz "die" of ovarian cancer so that she can follow his soul to heaven. Precocious as Dani was, can a 9-year old kid really think about death this way? 

The songs were talking about very macabre, hidden in sweet lilting tunes. The main antagonist Cancer were singing songs with titles like "God is Dead" and "Comaland." This Cancer guy was the same actor playing Raph the guardian angel, which was disorienting even for me. The most disturbing part for me was the eerie song "Side by Suicide" sung by the two kids in a sort of mutual death pact. This song was preceded by a scene of the kids buying the "strong stuff" from a Mexican drug pusher.  Can young audiences understand this the right way?

Because of these dark unsettling aspects, I cannot say I truly "enjoyed" the play. This musical was marketed for children, but I felt the topics discussed seemed way beyond their maturity. While I grant that children with cancer may be forced to mature faster than normal children, I still feel this material may be tough even for them. 

This play is not fun and games. This is as much as show about mental health as it was about cancer. It billed itself as "a musical about hope," but this hope was not easily seen in the show. This definitely requires a heart-to-heart family debriefing session after the show for the kids to process what they just watched -- especially if that kid has cancer himself.  


This re-staging of DANI GIRL by Sandbox Collective / 9 Works Theatricals runs from August 10 to September 1, 2019 at the RCBC Plaza. Show times are at 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays (except on Aug. 17). Ticket prices are at P2,000, P1,600, P1,300 and P900. 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Track by Track: BINONDO: A TSINOY MUSICAL Original Cast Recording

July 23, 2019

"Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical" (MY REVIEW) had a limited four-show re-run at the Solaire during the weekend of July 12 -14, 2019. In time with that restaging, the producers decided to release an original cast recording CD to immortalize the songs Von de Guzman wrote for the show. Book and lyrics were credited to Ricky Lee, Gershom Chua and Eljay Castro Deldoc, with additional lyrics by Von de Guzman and Joel Lamangan. For the CD, we hear the solid evocative voices of Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Arman Ferrer singing the songs of Lily and Ah Tiong, unless otherwise stated. 

Here are my thoughts about the 12 songs included in the CD, as I try to recall the scenes of the show again in my head when I hear them. The last time I watched the show was a whole year ago (was unable to catch the rerun), please pardon any lapses in my memory.


It is the Moon Festival and the people are out celebrating in the streets of Chinatown in Binondo. Filipina nightclub singer Lily had her fortune told in the Chinese temple, and the Chinese moon god Ge Lao sees love in her future. This happy opening number set the stage for the love story about to unfold.


Lily was singing this Chinese song in the Binondo nightclub where she worked, when Ah Tiong walked in an got hopelessly smitten. I have to credit the three lead singers for sounding authentic in pronouncing the tricky Chinese phonetics. Kudos to dialect coach!  This version of the song had lines of Filipino translation lyrics that alternated with the original Chinese lyrics. Since I knew this song by heart since childhood, this new variation took some getting used to for me, but I understand this was done to convey the full message of the song to the Filipino audience. 


This was the song where Ah Tiong was walking around the empty streets of Binondo after the club thinking about this pretty girl Lily he just met that night. It was in this song where he revealed that he had actually been betrothed by his parents to a local girl named Jasmin. The whole song was actually an internal debate of Ah Tiong within himself. Should he remain loyal to Jasmine waiting for him in China, or should he pursue his interest of courting Lily? The answer should be obvious to all of us, but as a romantic hero, Ah Tiong was a flawed man. Faithfulness and fortitude were not his strong points. 


This song sung by Noel Rayos as Carlos, while not really totally within the romance plot, has a message that resonates among the Chinoy audiences. Carlos was a Chinoy, born and raised in Binondo. This song was Carlos way of expressing that his loyalty and patriotism lay with his country of birth, the Philippines, and not China. This is a very timely song, especially now. It reflected the inner sentiment of most Chinoys now as Chinese nationals from the mainland overrun the city. The Chinoys want to make clear that they are Filipinos by heart, and they should not be lumped as one together with the foreigners. 


Lily and Carlos had known each other since they were children, and Carlos had always been her reliable friend during times of need. Lily and Carlos are singing this song together, however, they have a different message to tell each other. Carlos loves her and wants their relationship to go to the next level. Lily loves Carlos too, but alas, only as a friend. The way this song was built up to that painful ending, this is was probably the saddest songs in the whole musical. It is not easy to accept that the person you desire to be your partner for life is relegating to the friend-zone. In this track, it was Floyd Tena's voice we hear giving life to Carlos' unrequited longing.


This song was a welcome upbeat change of pace in the middle of the show. This cheerful song celebrated the intensely giddy joy being experienced by Lily and Ah Tiong. These two young people falling madly in love with each other, such that they felt both their hearts were dancing to the thrilling beats of a disco song. This was a fun part of the show, in that the singer-actors also get to show off their dancing skills while belting out the song, which is definitely not an easy feat to achieve. This was the only song in this CD that featured the voices of Carla Guevarra-Laforteza and David Ezra singing as Lily and Ah Tiong.


The title alone tells the full story of this song. This song is a cautionary message by Lily's mother after she learned that her daughter was falling in love with a Chinese man Ah Tiong. The warning was not only one about their differences in their nationality and culture, but also about their differences in social standing. Mrs. de la Rosa wants to make Lily realize that she was going into a relationship which was fraught with so much uncertainty such that being hurt was already so certain from the get go. The message of the song may be predictable, but this was a master showcase for the powerhouse vocals of Ms. Ima Castro.


Ah Tiong needed to go back to China and this song was a countdown to that moment when he was leaving on a plane. In one of the cheesiest (sorry) yet so earnestly-delivered lines in the script, we hear Ah Tiong telling Lily that he will inform his parents how he had found his eternal love in the Chinatown of Manila. He promised Lily he will definitely come back and never again leave her side. It was ironic that while the two lovers sang of spending eternity together, they were actually about to part for good. This song closes Act 1 with a highly memorable scene where director Joel Lamangan and his tech crew were able to achieve stage magic with the dramatic illusion of Ah Tiong boarding an airplane as Lily was left behind tearfully waving goodbye -- a truly cinematic moment in the show. 


After Ah Tiong left, Lily soon realized that she was with child. She never knew that Ah Tiong is trapped in China because of the ongoing Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao Tse Tung. In this song, Lily is already resigning to the fact that Ah Tiong is most probably never coming back and that she had to face a future of raising her baby on her own. This song featured Shiela's crystalline voice at its most exquisite as she navigated the painful frustration and hopelessness that underlie its sad lyrics. She will carry this depression as a thorn in her heart until it eventually took a heavy toll on her health.


Jasmine was very sincere when she sang about Ah Tiong being her first and the last love. But who was Ah Tiong singing about when he sang these same lyrics? Was it really Jasmine whom he was embracing on that park bench? Or was he in fact singing about his faraway Lily in Manila? Or was it both of them he loved equally? Moral dilemma notwithstanding, this was my absolute favorite song in the whole CD melodically and arrangements-wise. This was the song I try to sing along to, even if I really couldn't because of the very high notes. Mariella Laurel and Arman harmonize beautifully together here as Jasmine and Ah Tiong. The erhu (Chinese violin) and Chinese percussion made this song even more distinct and authentic. 


This song is sung by Ruby, the daughter of Lily, now a high school student. This is about her acknowledging her mother's surprise revelation on her sickbed. Carlos, the father Ruby knew all her life, is not her biological father. Instead it is this stranger who just came in to visit that day, Ah Tiong. Ashlee Mickaela Factor imbued this song with youthful idealism and innocence. I wondered about the title of the track I recall that this song is but a part of a longer song number which included Ah Tiong begging for Lily's forgiveness for being unable to fulfill his promises.


For the finale, the streets of Binondo are again alive with another big festival. It is Chinese New Year and the whole cast assembled on the stage for one final extravaganza production number amidst all the usual trappings of Orientalia with energetically spectacular results. All's well that ends well as all the characters move on with their lives following Lily's tragic passing, and hope shines eternal for a good future ahead for everyone.