Sunday, December 20, 2015

My Yearend Roundup: The BEST of PHILIPPINE THEATER 2015

December 21, 2015

For the year 2015, I had seen and written about 44 theater productions: 12 musicals, 17 full-length plays, 12 one-act plays and 3 experimental productions. 

Still, that is only a fraction of everything the very active local theater scene has offered for the general public in the past year.  The remarkable array of straight plays of various genre were offered, more than there were musicals. Heavy traffic conditions going to Manila and especially Makati is a very real challenge nowadays. However the passion for witnessing Filipino theater talent and creativity remains a strong incentive for me to catch as many productions as possible. Too bad that I had not been able to see "Time Stands Still," "Saturday Night Fever: The Musical," and "Maniacal" because of schedule conflicts. 

I will list here what I feel were the best among those theater shows I have seen and written about for 2015. (My 2014 list was posted HERE.)



Book by: Carlo Vergara
Music and Lyrics by: Vincent de Jesus
Directed by: Chris Martinez

Mely Moran is a homely hardworking 35-year old woman who gets hired to be the maid of Fuerza Filipinas. Her sister Viva, on the other hand, gets recruited by a nefarious group of supervillains, the Kayumanggilas. Mely and Viva had long been at odds with each other since childhood because of their disparate personalities. However, with this latest and biggest misunderstanding, their unstable and adversarial relationship as sisters results in a conflict that would threaten the very safety of the whole world. 

Whatever shortcomings the very complex script may have with all the characters it had to deal with, it is the talent and charisma of the actors that become the crowning conceit of the whole show. Every actor just seemed to embrace their character perfectly, possessing voices that were able to soar with the punishing arrangements. It was one of those rare productions that brought together actors more known for their English plays and those more known for Filipino plays. I found this very exciting.  

Other Notable Productions:

Mabining Mandirigma (My Review)
#Popepular (My Review)

Notable Performances: 

Bituin Escalante, Kim Molina, Natasha Cabrera, Gianina Ocampo, Nar Cabico and Markki Stroem (Leading Lady), Delphine Buencamino and Antonio Ferrer (Mabini), Vincent Tanada and Cindy Liper (#Popepular), Myramae Meneses (Kanser@35), Cris Villonco (Bituing Walang Ningning), Fred Lo and KL Dizon (Manhid)



Book by: Marsha Norman
Music and Lyrics by: Joseph Robert Brown
Director: Bobby Garcia

From war torn Naples, Italy, young Francesca met American soldier Bud Johnson and decided to go back to the US with him to get married. 18 years and two teenage children later, 1965, Francesca lived a simple farmer's life in remote Winterset, Iowa. One weekend, while the rest of her family was out to the State Fair in the city, Francesca met a "National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid who asked her directions to a Roseman Bridge. Feeling an irresistible attraction borne out of her loneliness, Francesca fell deeply in love with Robert and gave in to her passionate desires.

Joanna Ampil was able to fully evoke the loneliness and unhappiness of her character so well that we reluctantly "understand" what she did. This whole show is Ampil's showcase and she carried it with full heart and soul. Francesca Johnson will be her signature role as far as the annals of Philippine theater history is concerned. 

Other Notable Productions:

La Cage Aux Folles (My Review)
The Secret Garden (My Review)

*** Foreign Touring Production: Singin' in the Rain (My Review)

Notable Performances: 

Joanna Ampil, MiG Ayesa, Nino Alejandro, Emeline Celis-Guinid, Carla Guevara-Laforteza (Bridges), Audie Gemora, Michael de Mesa, Sheila Francisco (La Cage), Caisa Borromeo and Noel Comia Jr. (The Secret Garden)


A. One-Act: 


Written by: Eljay Castro Deldoc

Directed by: Ed Lacson, Jr.

Maria Isabella asks the kite master Sr. Melchor Antebades to make her a kite which could bring her up among the stars, so her love Lorenzo would see her. Sr. Melchor gave her an incredible list of materials she needed to collect all from all over in order to make this kite. Maria Isabella asks her younger friend, a nameless butcher's apprentice, to accompany her on her trip. They never thought that their quest for these materials would take them 60 years!

This script was written by Eljay Castro Deldoc based a book by Dean Francis Alfar entitled "A Kite of Stars" (I have to look for this book!). This was unlike any other play I had seen in the Virgin Labfest before, because of it was a whimsically romantic play for children. It was imaginative the way the fantastic tale was told with puppets and shadowplay. I can totally imagine TP or PETA picking this timeless one-act play up and developing it into a gorgeous full-length production which can run forever to entertain generations of kids for years to come. 

Other Notable Productions: 

Hintayan sa Langit (My Review)

Notable Performances: 

Nonoy Froilan and Edna Vida Froilan (Hintayan sa Langit), Gio Gahol and Acey Aguilar (An Expected), Dido de la Paz and Meann Espinosa (Mapagbirong Haplos)

B. Full-Length: Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation: 

Best:  MGA BUHAY NA APOY (My Full Review)

Written and Directed by: Kanakan-Balintagos

Leda Santos was very excited that her estranged daughter Aurora Alba was moving back home. To welcome her back, Leda hosted a family get-together in their spacious garden at their mansion in Sampaloc. Invited are Leda's sisters, Lili and Selmah, and their respective families. Leda's artist son Aran was also happy that his sister is coming home, but he was constantly at odds with his mother, even during the party itself. The deeper the night got and the conversations got more intense, long-repressed family secrets all come spilling out, threatening to rip the broken family further apart.

The entire first two acts were but an extended introduction to the main meat of the play in the explosive Act 3. In fact, Act 3 alone is already worth the price of admission for the impressive flow of the dialogue and the array of fine acting on display. Kanakan-Balintagos has written and told an intricate story about how a life full of pain, heartache and suffering in one person affected the life of every person in her immediate family, mixed in with Palawan folklore. This is an uncommonly powerful piece of Filipino theater with distinct ethnic pride. 

Other Notable Productions: 

The Horse and his Boy (My Review)
# R </3 J (My Review)
Arbol de Fuego (My Review)
Juego del Peligro (My Review)
Noli at Fili Dos Mil (My Review)

Notable Performances:

Irma Adlawan (Mga Buhay na Apoy), Joel Trinidad, Reb Atadero and Cara Barredo (Horse), Roco Sanchez and Francesca Go (# R </3 J), Cherie Gil, Jake Macapagal, Angeli Bayani and Divine Aucina (Arbol), Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, Arnold Reyes and Adrienne Vergara (Juego), Lucho Ayala, Jack Yabut and Neomi Gonzales (Noli at Fili), Jasmine Curtis Smith, Sarah Facuri and Micah Munoz (No Filter), Jojo Cayabyab (Haring Lear)


Best: THE NORMAL HEART (My Full Review)

Written by: Larry Kramer
Directed by: Bart Guingona

The setting is 1981 in New York City. Writer Ned Weeks is very distressed that many of his fellow gay friends have been dying of a mysterious disease affecting the immune system. Initial evidence points to promiscuous sexual practices among homosexuals as the possible mode of infection. Ned Weeks begins his aggressive and active educational campaign. However, the gay community of that time, including Ned's friends, was very resistant to this idea of changing their habits. The government was not inclined to help in their marginalized cause as the death toll continued to rise.

The caliber of the acting in this ensemble piece of theater was astounding. Every actor in the eight-member cast had their big difficult dramatic moment which they attacked with such deep-seated emotional ferocity. You can feel the boiling frustration within Ned Weeks with Bart Guingona's raw and passionate performance.You can witness the gradual withering away of Felix Turner from a vibrant bon vivant into a pale white ghost with Topper Fabregas' sensitively delicate performance. Roselyn Perez, as polio-stricken, wheelchair-bound Dr. Emma Brookman, gave such a tour de force performance, unforgettable in its sheer bravado, seething with pulsating anger. 

Other Notable Productions:

33 Variations (My Review)
4000 Miles (My Review)
This is Our Youth (My Review)

Notable Performances: 

Jef Flores (This is Our Youth, 4000 Miles), Bart Guingona, Topper Fabregas, Richard Cunanan, TJ Trinidad and Roselyn Perez (Normal Heart), Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino and Teroy Guzman (33 Variations), Jamie Wilson and Jeremy Domingo (Run for Your Wife), Nicco Manalo (This is Our Youth), Baby Barredo (4000 Miles)

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Review of Atlantis' THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY: Lyrical Loneliness

December 5, 2015

"The Bridges of Madison County" is a popular 1992 novel by Robert James Waller, selling more than 50 million copies worldwide. In 1995, a film version was made starring Hollywood royalty, Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood, in the lead roles. In 2013, a musical play was crafted with book by Marsha Norman (who also wrote "The Secret Garden") and music and lyrics by Joseph Robert Brown (who did "The Last Five Years"). Not really too fond of this genre, I was initially not inclined to brave the ever-worsening Makati traffic to go watch it. However, the rave reviews this show got from its first week made it difficult to resist.

From war torn Naples, Italy, young Francesca met American soldier Bud Johnson and decided to go back to the US with him to get married. 18 years and two teenage children later, 1965, Francesca lived a simple farmer's life in remote Winterset, Iowa. One weekend, while the rest of her family was out to the State Fair in the big city for four days, Francesca met a "hippie" National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid who asked her directions to a certain Roseman Bridge which he needed to take pictures of.  Feeling an irresistible attraction borne out of her loneliness, Francesca fell deeply in love with Robert and gave in to her passionate desires.

This is a story that would evoke different reactions from men and women. Women see this story as wish-fulfillment for a strong handsome man to sweep them off their feet and rescue them from their humdrum existence. For men though, this is a horror story of what may happen behind their backs if they, as husbands, were not sensitive to their wives' hidden frustrations about their lives. The success of the book and the movie are already proof of the story's connection with its audience. The creation of this musical thirty years after the book came out was further proof of its timeless appeal, mainly for women.

I have long-heard of Joanna Ampil and her singing and acting talents already recognized in the West End in London. However, this is the very first time I was seeing her perform. I was blown away from the very first note that came out from her as she opened the show with her first song "To Build a Home."  Her singing was, in a word, glorious. I did not immediately catch that she was Italian as the accent was very subtle, but I did not mind. Ampil was able to fully evoke the loneliness and unhappiness of her character so well that we reluctantly "understand" what she did. This whole show is Ampil's showcase and she carried it with full heart and soul. Francesca Johnson will be her signature role as far as the annals of Philippine theater history is concerned. 

Migs Ayesa we first knew from his stint as contestant in the TV search for the new lead singer of INXS. We are fully aware of his soaring rock vocals which he already showed local audiences as the crazy rock star Stacee Jaxx in the Atlantis production of "Rock of Ages." His Robert Kincaid was the ideal paperback romantic hero, a shy silent loner with his sculpted torso who sings well too, the stuff of an insecure husband's nightmares. Ayesa impressibly nailed all his punishing notes down, although his singing voice may tend to be nasal in the higher registers. He also had several effectively quiet moments singing serious sentiments in acapella in songs like "It All Fades Away", which were likewise impressive.

I do not know if this was Nino Alejandro's first major theater production, but he certainly played the role of the cuckolded husband Bud with restraint expected from his inarticulate character, with his open face wordlessly clear of his gradual realizations. His numerous phone call scenes could have been so simple mundane, but with them, Alejandro was able to make us feel his growing anxieties. His featured song “Something from a Dream” was poignantly expressive of his love for his wife. 

Neighbors and close friends Charlie (Jamie Wilson) and Marge (Emeline Celis-Guinid) somehow put two and two together when they saw Kincaid's truck parked outside the Johnson farm overnight. These two were a delightfully nosy couple yet they knew their place. Celis-Guinid surprised us with her sultry rendition of a radio love song “Get Closer” in total contrast with the shrill voice of Marge. Wilson can play any character with empathy and homespun charm. He also gets to sing a moving song "When I'm Gone" with Alejandro. 

The goings-on of the two Johnson kids, Michael and his rebellious phase (played by Bibo Reyes) and Carolyn and her prize steer (played by MIkkie Bradshaw) were obviously just thrown in to prolong the story, but those petty squabbles between these two tended to make the storytelling a bit messy. There was an additional character, Robert’s ex-wife, Marian, that was not entirely necessary. However, the beautiful Carla Guevara-Laforteza made magic with her one featured song "Another Life”, with guitar playing to boot!

When you first enter the theater, you see a bare stage with a wooden floor and three walls of framed photographs surrounding it. During the course of the play, the company ensemble (Steven Conde, Nel Gomez, Franz Imperial, Yanah Laurel, Abi Sulit and Teetin Villanueva) will be revealing surprises from behind these frames. The props were so simple yet so effective in delineating space and even perspective. You should see how those step ladders become doorways, the refrigerator or Roseman bridge itself. I even like the sink and counter with the realistic carrots. This innovative set design was courtesy of Faust Peneyra.

The songs in this musical were a curious mix of show tunes tinged with Country and Gospel flavors in keeping with its setting in the American heartland. The love songs were quite Pop in style, laced with R&B and Rock. Musical director Ceejay Javier led his orchestra through these various styles. Joseph Robert Brown's style of flight-of-ideas songwriting (which we heard in "The Last Five Years" with mixed results) is clearly dependent on the singer's talents to breathe life and emotion into them. As usual, the Filipino performers rise up to the challenge successfully. Kudos to director Bobby Garcia for another triumphant production!


"The Bridges of Madison County" opened last November 20, 2015 and will be winding up their run on December 6, with two shows at 3 pm and 8 pm. Venue will be at the Carlos P. Romulo Theater at the RCBC Plaza, Makati City. Ticket prices from P3000 to P900. Check out to buy your tickets.

To get a feel of the music, below is a video of one of the best and most memorable songs from the show, the love duet "One Second and a Million Miles" rendered by the original Broadway stars, Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale: