Sunday, November 20, 2016

Review of Atlantis' FUN HOME: Fathoming Frailties of a Father

November 21, 2016

Since it was announced that Lea Salonga will be returning on a local stage for a play, fans had been looking forward to watching this production. I have heard of the title "Fun Home" and the multiple Tony Awards this musical play brought home just last year. Therefore the hype and anticipation for watching such a recent Broadway hit show locally is very high leading up to its debut at the CP Romulo Auditorium at the RCBC Plaza, Makati City last November 10, 2016. This is the international debut of this show, a real big deal.

"Fun Home" is the nickname fondly given by the members of the Bechdel family for their maudlin family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home. We follow the story of the narrator, eldest daughter Allison: her childhood growing up, her sexual awakening in college and her current occupation as a comic book graphic artist. The story is told with regard to her delicate bond with her jack-of-all-trades father Bruce, who may or may not have been as ideal a dad as she thought.

This story originated from an actual 2006 autobiographical graphic novel by the real Alison Bechdel. The musical was first developed in 2009 with book and lyrics by Lisa Kron and music by Jeanine Teson, and first played Off-Broadway in 2013 before its Broadway debut in 2015. The show went on to win five Tonys out of its twelve nominations, including Best Musical, Director (Sam Gold), Book, Original Score and Lead Actor (for Michael Cerveris).

The flow of the play is familiar and typical enough. We meet what seems to be an ideal happy American family composed of father Bruce, mother Helen and their three kids Alison, Christian and John. Later in the course of the play as events unfold, we see that they are actually a dysfunctional family. So far, so familiar.

However, this play goes beyond just simple dysfunction to tackle one sensitive issue after another: from gay girls cavorting and gay guys seducing, to child abuse and marital abuse, all the way to lying inside coffins, and there is even talk of body lice! These are all very serious controversial stuff that the more conservative musical theater fans may not really feel comfortable about. After watching, it was frankly very difficult to process how I liked the story, or not. 

If you go to watch the show without any knowledge about the story, the unfolding of the story can be quite discomfiting for some more right-wing folk. The show is rated PG-13 for some intense scenes which require maturity, but there are actually young kids in the cast so those sensitive scenes can come as quite a shock for some people. I'd personally rate it R-16. Anyhow, you need to remember that this is already a Tony award-winning book so more people love it than you don't.

If the story may evoke conflicting reactions as it progressed, I believe that the conclusion will be universally loved. The touching way the ending scene ("Flying Away") was executed by director Bobby Garcia with his three Alisons (of three different ages) really hit its mark. When that beautiful drawing of small Alison playing airplane with her father flashed on the screen behind the actors, I was swept by an overwhelming rush of emotion as the image of me and my own father (as well as me and my own daughter) flashed in my mind. 

It was really amazing how they cast three actresses of different ages to play Alison. The 43-year old Alison Bechdel was played by Cris Villonco and of course, she could do no wrong as she was practically onstage the whole time narrating the story while working on her graphic novel. As good as Villonco was as always, impossible as it may seem, the two younger Alisons were given more to do in terms of character development and the two younger actresses actually do much better.  

10-year old Small Alison was played by the young dynamite Andee Achacoso. 11-year old Achacoso played her character very naturally with the right balance of charm, smarts and mischief. She also had a good rapport with two boy actors who played her kid brothers (Ronan Crisologo ? and Albert Silos). Fathers in the audience (like me) will be able to feel the father-daughter connection. Her biggest song is also the most controversial and , "Rings of Keys," telling us how she felt when she first saw a butch lesbian. Hearing a child sing this brave song can be unsettling for the uninitiated. (Katie Bradshaw alternates as Small Alison. Daniel Drilon and Teddy Velasco alternate as Christian, while Noel Comia, Jr. alternates as John.)

19-year old Medium Alison was played by Mikkie BradshawI first saw her as "Carrie" and knew back then that she is one very good actress and singer. Bradshaw had a light, Disney-esque vocal quality that conveyed her character's innocence and curiosity (so well heard in her humorously naughty song of awakening entitled "Changing My Major"), in perfect contrast to that incredibly deep earthy voice used by Yanah Laurel as her girlfriend Joan. 

Atlantis decided to get a bonafide Broadway star, Eric Kunze, to play Alison's father Bruce. This role is complex and meaty -- a flawed character that actors love to sink their teeth into. For audiences, his scenes were very discomfiting to watch. That scene when he picks up male student in his car was particularly squeamish, especially with that Hitchcock-like music that played in the background. His big moment of painful and ultimately mortal catharsis came in a song called "Edges of the World." Ironically, of all the actors, I had most trouble hearing Kunze's lines. His mic might not be working perfectly that show.

Young Fil-New Zealander actor Laurence Mossman played multiple roles of Roy, Mark, Pete, Bobby Jeremy, boys who hung around the Bechdel home for various reasons. At first we thought he was just there mainly because of his good looks and buff body as those roles required. However, he actually surprised us with his strong tenor singing voice in the song "Rainbow of Love". I think we will be seeing more of this guy in future stage productions.

Despite what audiences would expect for a star of her magnitude, Lea Salonga actually had very little stage time as Alison's long-suffering martyr of a mother Helen. Anyhow, Salonga would make the most of her big showcase moment when she gets to spill out all the harrowing emotions and frustrations Helen had held back all these years in a powerful ballad entitled "Days and Days." This single song alone, rendered with simmering intensity coming to a full boil, is able to highlight why Salonga is our national treasure.

Lending creative support to Director Bobby Garcia are the talented and ever-efficient technical geniuses: Musical Director Ceejay Javier, Vocal Director ManMan Angsico, Choreographer Cecile Martinez, Light Designer Adam Honore, Set Designer Faust Peneyra, Costume Designer Oz Go, Sound Designer Kevin Heard, Projection Designer GA Fallarme and Hair and Make-up Designer Johann dela Fuente. As with other Atlantis shows, the production ran seamlessly with no obvious hitches. We do not really have to go to Broadway to catch these hit shows anymore. (Coming up next year is Cyndi Lauper's "Kinky Boots".)


There are only five shows remaining of their limited 18 show run: Nov 25 (Fri) 8PM, Nov 26 (Sat) 3PM/8PM and Nov 27 (Sun) 3PM/8PM. On Ticketworld, tickets cost P 4,180  (Orchestra Center), P 3,657.50  (Orchestra Right / Left), P 3,135 (Loge Center / Sides) and P 1,567.50 (Balcony). 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Review of PETA's THE TEMPEST REIMAGINED: Intricate Integration

November 12, 2016

Adapting Shakespeare into Filipino certainly sounds like a formidable venture. However, in various such local productions, the talents of Filipino theater artists have made the tricky transition look easy. This year alone, Dulaang UP had done "A Comedy of Errors" while Tanghalang Pilipino did "A Midsummer Night's Dream" to great success. In recent years, PETA had done "King Lear" in 2012 and "Twelfth Night" (as "The Wonder Twins of Boac") in 2013, both of which were very well-received. 

This present production of PETA entitled "The Tempest Reimagined" was done in cooperation of the British Council, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and The Japan Foundation Manila. The director and playwright of this play Nona Shepphard is British, as is the set designer Marsha Roddy. The lighting director Tsuguo Izumi is Japanese. This international technical staff together with the all-Filipino cast gives this play its unique look and flavor. The script was translated to Filipino/Taglish by Liza Magtoto. The sound design is by Teresa Barrozo.

"The Tempest" was about a sorcerer Prospero who ordered his enslaved spirit named Ariel to whip up a destructive storm at sea, sinking the ship which carried the Queen Alonsa and her family. The survivors all sought refuge on Prospero's island, enabling his daughter to meet and fall in love with Alonsa's son Ferdinand. This main story line was complicated by subplots about Prospero's brother Antonio and his treacherous plots, as well as about the island monster Caliban and his drunken encounter with the fools Stephano and Trinculo. 

In her adaptation, Shepphard changed "The Tempest" from a play containing only one major female character (Miranda) into one with six female characters. The central character of the sorcerer Prospero remained to be male, but was now played by a female actor. The King Alonso was now a Queen, Alonsa. The king's brother Sebastian was now a sister Sebastiana. And in the most inspired deviation from the original, the powerful sprite Ariel is now being portrayed by three actors, one male and two female. 

Furthermore, this main story was extended to include the story about the fates of Papa Boms, Edith, Alina and Diego, four strangers who got together when they were swept up by the giant storm surge that rose and flooded Tacloban City at the height of Super Typhoon Yolanda. Social commentary was directed towards the national government, local government and the private sector and the quality of their relief and rehabilitation efforts for the victims of the disaster.

I was not familiar at all with the story of "The Tempest" so it took some time for me to get into the drift of the story. The casting of Prospero as a woman (CB Garrucho) was a particularly puzzling modification of uncertain significance. The portrayal of Ariel as a trio was initially confusing (but this later turned out to be a fantastic decision). Why were Jenny Jamora and Brian Sy (who seem to be the same age) cast as mother and son?! The whole Caliban, Stephano and Trinculo subplot did not seem to fit too well into the narrative.

The inclusion of the Yolanda characters, portrayed by the same actors running around the stage and varying their costumes to signify the character they were playing, did not make it any easier for me to understand what was going on at first. To be honest, the manner how and the reasons why the two stories connected to each other at the end were not so clear for me even up to now that I am writing about it. 

This was the first time I saw PETA President CB Garrucho in a major stage role. She had those long Prospero lines perfectly down, delivered with no errors. While I can imagine a man play this character with ruthlessness, but Garrucho instead imbued her Prospero with gentility and compassion. Bodjie Pascua is such a reliable veteran with his effortless natural style as Papa Boms. Norbs Portales had an easygoing sense of humor as the narrator Jaime. This was the first time I have seen the Red Turnips Jenny Jamora and Topper Fabregas deliver lines in Filipino. Meann Espinosa, John Moran and Renante Bustamante all had their moments to shine as Edith, Caliban and Antonio respectively.

In the show I watched today, Ariel was played by Gio Gahol, Neomi Gonzales and Gab Pangilinan.  The conceptualization and execution of this character was flawless, great lines. Their makeup and costume really stood out among everyone else. Their harmonizing in song was also so beautiful to hear. There was another memorable trio that made a lasting impression: John Moran, Jack Yabut and Topper Fabregas as Gods 1, 2 and 3. Their hilarious exchange of lines made its implicit mocking of governmental action (or inaction) during Yolanda most engaging with effective satire. 

The acting talent on that stage was undeniable and this was the saving grace of this show. The set may have looked very simple before the show began, however the way they portrayed the titular tempest onstage was so good. We all felt like we were aboard that ship being tossed around by the waves. The lighting and sound design both deserve commendation as well. I admit my difficulty in fully grasping the structure of the play and some of the casting decisions. The intention to integrate stories of Yolanda with Shakespeare may have been noble, but the overall result of the complexity was a little unwieldy for me.

"The Tempest Reimagined" will run from November 11 to December 4, 2016 at the PETA Theater Center. For tickets,, 8919999.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Recap of VIENNA BOYS CHOIR Live in Manila 2016: History and Harmony

November 11, 2016

The Vienna Boys Choir is one of the oldest choirs existing in the world with a history dating back at least 500 years. Illustrious musicians like Mozart and Salieri have worked with the choir, while Schubert and Haydn have actually sung with the choir. It was really fortunate that the boys performed at the Plenary Hall of the Philippine International Convention Center for a one-night only concert on November 11, 2016 as the final stop of their Asian tour this year. The last time this famed choir performed in Manila was back in 2004.

The show opened with the Philippine and Austrian National Anthems sung by the girls and boys of the Hail Mary the Queen Choir from Cubao, decked in bright and colorful Muslim-inspired costumes. The young current principal of Xavier School, Fr. Aristotle Dy, SJ delivered his opening speech, followed by the Ambassador of Austria to the Philippines, Dr. Josef MuellnerTheir speeches reminded us that this concert not only celebrates the 60th anniversary of Xavier School, it also celebrates the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Austria and our country.

The members of the Vienna Boys' Choir were mainly from Austria, but over the years, more and more boys from other countries have joined. This present visiting group (the Bruckner group) was multi-racial. There were at least four Asians in the group, including Yu (from China), Ryusei (from Japan), Jeong-Min (from Korea) and Lance (from the Philippines). Lance So is the first Filipino member of the choir. He is the son of Mr. Eric So, a member of Xavier School batch 1992 who was responsible for bringing the choir over in cooperation with the Embassy of Austria. Their current choirmaster (since 2008) is the youthful and energetic Italian pianist and conductor Manolo Cagnin

Lance So delivers his speech
with Maestro Manolo Cagnin beside him

The first half of the program was dedicated to classical choral pieces by Vivaldi, Schubert, Verdi and Strauss. Two rather unique pieces stood out and were most well-applauded. The first was the amusingly rhythmic "Capricicciata a tre voci" and "Contrappunto bestiale alle mente" (from Adriano Banchieri's farce "Festino", 1608) where the boys sang with sounds of a dog, a cat, a cuckoo and an owl. The second piece was the strange but delightful "Cat's Duet" compiled by Robert Lucas de Pearsall (using melodies from Gioachino Rossini's 1816 opera "Otello"), where four boys sang nothing else but meowing sounds the whole time. The main boy soprano Robert (from Ireland) offered a stirring solo performance of Schubert's "Ave Maria" to the country. 

The second half of the program after a short 10-minute break featured an eclectic mix of more familiar songs. It opened with the Rosemary Clooney ditty "Mambo Italiano" (Bob Merrill, 1954), then Enrico Caruso's Neapolitan barcarolle "Santa Lucia". More popular songs followed with some boys showing off their talents on guitar, violin and percussion: "O Sole Mio'", "That's Amore," "Nella Fanstasia," "Amazing Grace" and "Volare". For me, the most beautifully-rendered song of this set was the quintessentially Austrian "Edelweiss" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "The Sound of Music." Their final song on the program was "Blue Danube" by Johann Strauss II, Austria's so-called "secret national anthem". 

The impressive Sopranos whose soaring voices defined the VBC sound

The Hail Mary the Queen Choir came out again and sang the Ilocano folksong "Pamulinawen" together with the boys. After that, another soloist Matthew (from New Zealand) came forward to render the very popular Mandarin standard song "Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin (The Moon Represents My Heart)" to the delight of the Chinese members of the audience. The boys generously entertained the calls for a few more encore numbers (including a Christmas song medley) until the concert of angelic voices finally came to an end. We had just heard one of Austria's national treasures sing for us live, and that was an extraordinary experience to cherish.