I had heard about the PETA production of "Care Divas" even before its opening last February 4, 2011. I must admit that the overall theme of Filipino gay caregivers / transvestite performers in a foreign country did not really appeal to me. I was not planning to watch this play at all. However with the barrage of good press and good reviews about this play, my wife and I caught the very last staging of this original Filipino musicale yesterday night, March 13, 2011. The last 8 pm show had a higher price than the rest of the run, P500 compared to the usual P300. It also promised to bring together ALL the Care Divas onstage for one last time for a grand finale number.
The play is set in Israel, and started with an introduction of the three main Care Divas: the cheerful Chelsea, the funny Kayla and the no-nonsense Shai and their Jewish patients. The scene transitions were done very fluidly from one caregiver to the next. Later we also meet the nutty one, Thalia and tough one, Jonee. The individual drama they have as gay caregivers in a foreign land seem to disappear when they get together to dress up in full drag and perform as the "Manne-queens" at night.
Of course, it isn't all fun and roses for these Care Divas. Someone gets fired by his snooty employer, loses his work permit, becomes an illegal alien and faces deportation. Another one hooks up with a Palestinian man Daniel one day; and her "ideal" routine is turned upside down because of puppy love and later, more tragic complications. Even as a group, the acceptance of their drag queen act is not as it would seem when they get a big break to stage a show in Tel Aviv. These problems leads to internal problems among the friends.
I have known about Vince de Jesus and his music since I watched "Juan Tamad" before. The songs are quite impressive. They should really record a compilation of these very good songs from this and other PETA productions for posterity. The songs here in "Care Divas" are as dichotomous, the solo songs are the dramatic and contemplative, while the group songs are flashier and more upbeat. The lyrics are very funny and meaningful at the same time, and deserves repeated listening.
The story by Liza Magtoto should be commended for being very well-researched as it includes various issues about OFW life in the Middle East. There were very touchy matters tackled by the script, about employment, curfews, deportations, even suicide bombings. I felt that she may have tried to squeeze in too many serious topics which rather made the play a bit too long (more than 2 hours!). As a play with florid gay characters, the language used is well, gay speak as we hear it around us, in beauty salons or on tv. To be expected are vulgar expletives and sexual double-entendres (especially the lines of Thalia). This play is definitely not for kids or the ultra-sensitive.
For the main actors: Melvin Lee as the lead character Chelsea is cute and girly, despite his big size. She is like a male Sharon Cuneta. I have seen Melvin before dance as Sabel also here in PETA, but this is the first acting role I have seen him in. Ricci Chan plays the lead singer Kayla because of her amazing female voice quality. Of course, we remember Ricci from his portrayal of Angel in the first local production of "Rent" back in 1999. The beautiful voice is still there, but Ricci has gained some heft since then, and I did not recognize him at first. Vince de Jesus, is very good as the group leader Shai. He can be serious yet also funny, with a bad temper too. I have seen him perform as the Devil in "Juan Tamad" before, and he is as good an actor, as he is a composer.
Dudz Terana is deadpan as the flirty kleptomaniac Thalia. He gets all the dirty lines and all the biggest laughs from the audience. This Thalia is funny scary, haha! Phil Noble is the diva with rough low voice. He is the most butch and brutally honest of the five. I have seen PETA president CB Garrucho before mostly in ceremonial functions, but this is the first time I have seen her act. She is excellent in essaying these Israeli employers, with the accent and all. Myke Salomon is a very daring actor in terms of the physical requirements of his role of Daniel, the boyfriend with a secret. He also projects sensitivity in his romantic scenes and he can also sing very well. Paul Holmes is excellent as ever portraying the invalid patients. His turn as Chelsea's father figure Isaac is particularly touching.
Overall, because my wife and I were relatively conservative people, I would confess that there were some situations and language in the play that made us feel uncomfortable. But that is just us, of course. The full house audience turnout last night, including plenty of big names in the local showbiz industry, as well as the resounding ovations, is a testament to the success and acceptance of this production! Among the celebrities we saw in the audience were Sharon Cuneta and KC Concepcion, Regine Velasquez and Ogie Alcasid, directors Joel Lamangan and Soxie Topacio, comedians John Lapuz, Juana Change and Evelyn Vargas.
Earlier I described "Care Divas" as a musical about the life and times of a group of five gay Filipino caregivers in Israel, with an underlying advocacy about OFWs working in the Middle East. Or we can in fact look at it another way, that its main story was about OFWs living in the Middle East which used the comedy device of gay entertainers to try and lighten the human tragedy involved. In any case, "Care Divas" is an important musical in its promotion of Filipino social awareness. Congratulations to Director Maribel Legarda for skillfully putting this eye-opening play together. As always, kudos to PETA for carrying the torch for excellent Filipino theater entertainment!