February 8, 2014
Last night at the Meralco Theater was the press preview of what is reportedly the first musical composed by a Filipino intended for West End in London and Broadway in New York, entitled "Marco Polo: An Untold Love Story the Musical". It was written and composed by Rogelio Saldo Chua, who is also the artistic director. With such an audacious claim, we came to expect a lot from this production.
The musical tells the fictional love story created for Marco Polo, the brave adventurer from Venice and Princess Kogajin, the daughter of the great Emperor Kublai Khan. The three-hour show in two acts (with intermission) spans the story from Marco's teenage years in Venice to his days in Cathay, striving to prove himself, a mere son of a Venetian merchant, worthy of the love of the Mongol princess, amidst political intrigue in the royal court.
Theater actor David Bianco (whom I last saw as a philandering pilot in the Rep comedy "Boeing Boeing") takes on the role of Marco Polo. I was pleasantly surprised that he could sing very well with a strong baritone. He was convincing as a teenager, but those giggling chase scenes with the princess looked awkward and too childish. I feel some more production work is needed to highlight his solo singing spots better, as those scenes still come off as rough around the edges, lacking drama.
Playing opposite Bianco is Fil-Am singer-actress Stephanie Reese playing Princess Kogajin. She had played Tuptim in the revival of King & I on the West End and Kim in the German version of Miss Saigon, and these international experiences showed in her performance, in acting and especially the singing with her sweet soprano. Her smile and voice were a little too sweet to be convincing that she was supposed to be accomplished Mongol warrior though. Her modern-looking high-heeled shoes can also be a bit distracting, and amusing to see. She also needs to work more on her wushu skills.
Easily the best performance of the night was from Pinky Marquez, who played Kogajin's sympathetic mother, the Empress Wu. Ms. Marquez dominates all the scenes she was in, with her magnetic stage presence and soaring soprano voice. She is regal and motherly at the same time, with a confident voice that resonates with these two qualities of her character.
One of the big reasons I wanted to see this show was the presence of the name of George Yang on the poster. As predicted, the founder of McDonald's Philippines plays the venerable emperor, Kublai Khan. I had long heard about his opera singing, and had always been curious to hear it, and thankfully, I heard him sing last night. I am amazed at the way he tackled his difficult songs and delivered his long lines, considering that he was pushing 75 already. It is never too late to launch a new career at any age.
Veteran actor Chinggoy Alonso appears as the narrator Rustigielo as well as a handful of other small roles, most notably the Pope who blessed Marco Polo before his long journey. Mr. Alonso's long stage career contrasts over the other less-experienced younger cast members with his more bombastic attack.
Three supporting actors also had fine performances, vocally and acting-wise. They are: Miguel Faustmann as Marco's goofy Uncle Maffeo, Nicky Triviño as Khan's dignified eldest daughter Toragana, and Enrhil Serguino as the supportive Mongol Lord Koghatal.
Two actors were notably nervous last night. Brent Metken, a senior Australian actor who played Marco's father Niccolo, was delivering lines so languidly like it was still a rehearsal. To his credit, he did not flub a line but he he has to up the energy of his future performances. On the other extreme, there was John Alaras, this young guy playing one of the antagonistic Mongol barons. He was way over-the-top in his delivery with annoyingly fake laughing. While he did liven things up onstage when he is there, it was not necessarily in a good way.
The musical featured about 23 songs and three colorful Chinese-inspired dance numbers. The songs were pleasant to hear, though not particularly memorable or hummable upon just one listening. The costumes designed and executed by Odit Sarte for the most part looked very good and vibrant. I am not really sure though how accurate they are culturally or historically for that part of the world at that time in the past.
Last night, the play still felt like it was in development in several parts. There were many scenes that still looked a bit roughshod needing further polishing, particularly those sword fights. The big comedy song numbers, though funny, still looked a bit awkward with the rather amateurish choreography.
With this press preview over, the cast and crew now know how to adjust themselves accordingly in time for the Gala World Premiere tonight. This musical definitely has promise, especially with more judicious streamlining of the script, songs and improvements on the stage design and the blocking on the big stage.
"Marco Polo: An Untold Love Story the Musical" will have a limited two show run at the Meralco Theater tonight Feb. 8, at 8 pm and tomorrow Feb. 9, at 3 pm.