Friday, June 23, 2017

Review of Cirque du Soleil's TORUK - THE FIRST FLIGHT in Manila: Frenetic, Fascinating, Fantastic

June 23, 2017



Cirque du Soleil is an artistic organization based in Quebec staging grand shows of acrobatic excellence to countries all over the world since its inception in 1984. The first Cirque show ever staged in Manila was back in June 2011 with "Varekai" which was held in a special tent set-up in Rizal Park. After that, the next Cirque show was "Saltimbanco" in August 2012, which was held in the then brand new SM Mall of Asia Arena. 

This year, Cirque du Soleil once again returns to the MOA Arena with their latest successful touring show called "Toruk - the First Flight" which was inspired by one of the biggest box-office hit movies of all time, "Avatar" by James Cameron. Cirque developed this show (their 37th production) in 2015, and it has been touring the USA and the world ever since. This Manila run from June 23 to July 2 is the Asian premiere of this show.


Frenetic Trampoline Stunts

"Toruk" is set in the planet of Pandora, inhabited by the blue, tailed beings called the Na'vi. It tells the tale of two Na'vi boys Ralu and Entu, brothers in heart, who bravely go on a dangerous quest all over the planet to gather five essential talismans needed to tame and ride the much-feared giant flying dragon called the Toruk, a creature which can save the planet Pandora from being totally destroyed by an impending cataclysmic disaster.

In the MOA Arena, the whole orchestra section had been covered in black, with twinkling lights playing like fireflies. The audience area bathed in blue light. By the start of the show, this huge black covering will be peeled off to reveal the more vibrant world underneath. This is one of those shows where the higher rows of seats on either right and left sides may have a better panoramic bird's eye view of the whole performance area. Where we were seated in the front rows of the center section, there were obstructed views to certain scenes.


Illusion of a Flowing River

Act I boasts of spectacular acrobatic numbers involving trampolines, ropes, and hammocks of cloth on which the performers would execute stunts of remarkable strength and agility. There are inventively executed full-sized animal puppets, gardens of vividly colorful plants, various land forms (like cliffs and volcanoes) and water forms (like waterfalls and rivers) underneath, thanks to the realistic illusion of lights and graphic projections. 

My most favorite sequence of all is the most elegant performance atop a skeleton of a massive beast where the acrobats did their breathtaking stunts with utmost grace and balance. This whole segment about the third talisman (right before the 20 minute intermission) was a beautiful non-stop series of one photogenic scene after the other. I was in complete awe while watching this incredibly riveting number.


Balancing on a Rotating "Skeleton"


Act 2 began with some thunder rumbling, with the lightning flashes coming from the cellphones of people in the audience who had downloaded the Toruk interactive app. Compared to Act 1, Act 2 seemed to have less spectacular stunts, with climbing poles, throwing boomerangs, flying kites, crossing a net bridge. The main highlight of Act 2 of course is the actual grand appearance of titular Toruk itself in all its bright orange glory. How they gave the giant dragon-like creature Toruk the illusion of flight was very imaginative, especially as it even had one Na'vi boy riding on it.

Because of the strange Na'vi names and the unintelligible invented language the characters spoke, you'd have to rely on the English narration to fully understand the flow of the story. Some may feel that the slow pace of story development, along with the unfamiliar instrumental musical score and ethereal songs (by the Shaman character), may lull them at times. But not to worry about falling asleep though, as there is a new death-defying stunt would immediately snap you back to attention at every turn.


Lead Characters Pose in the Lobby

This is the very first Cirque du Soleil show I had ever watched live. I can see why these shows are very popular. The art design of the whole spread of the stage is a lavish visual feast. You could hardly keep your eyes on one thing as there were so many interesting things happening at the same time at different sections of the expansive performance area. There is enough hyper and psychedelic multi-sensory stimulation here to keep everyone, young and old, fascinated, happy and entertained. 

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"TORUK: The First Flight" runs from June 23 to July 2, 2017 at the MOA Arena. Only 10 shows: Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 4pm and 8pm, Sundays 1pm and 5pm. For tickets, call SM Ticketnet 4702222. Ticket prices: P7368, P5990 for lower box, P4770 for Gen Ad, P3498 and P1500 for seats with obstructed view.


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review of Artist Playground's M EPISODE: Manifesting Macbeth

June 18, 2017




Just last February, Artist Playground presented a 40-minute one-act play by James Chalmers entitled "Prelude to Macbeth." This play laid out the possible scenario that occurred before the events of William Shakespeare's classic play "Macbeth." Since I was already familiar with "Macbeth," I was thoroughly entertained with the imaginative story about how one poor but ambitious girl Lorna Stewart manipulated her way (upon the prescient prodding of three witches) into the ruling royal house of Scotland, eventually winding up as the Lady Macbeth we all know and hate. (MY FULL REVIEW HERE)

At the end of that show, director Roeder Camanag excitedly told us that he was cooking up a bigger project tentatively middle of this year to merge "Prelude to Macbeth" back-to-back with an abridged version of "Macbeth" itself. That formidable project now comes to fruition even ahead of his initial plan of a July schedule. This is the longest Artist Playground production ever, running at 2 hours and 10 minutes, with a 10 minute intermission.


The new Artist Playground II 
(photo from their FB page)

In addition, Artist Playground had collaborated with St. Vincent's School to form Arts Above with a vision to establish a School for the Arts. As an offshoot of this collaboration, a new Artist Playground II is located in the penthouse of the BIR Building along West Avenue in Quezon City (right across St. Vincent's School) to provide a much bigger staging venue for this bigger project. The auditorium and its spacious anteroom / cafe is remarkable because of its elegant narra paneling on its ceiling, walls and floor which had been obtained and reassembled from an actual old ancestral house. 

Act I "Prelude to Macbeth" played like how I remembered it from five months ago, with basically the same cast I saw back then. I liked it all over again. However, with the transfer to a much bigger room than its original venue in Little Room Upstairs came some noticeable challenges when it comes to voice projection. This was most notable in the case of the charming actress playing Lorna Stewart herself, Jernice Matunan. She had the vixen-like character of this central role down pat, however, there were some lines she delivered which could not be heard where we were seated. 

In the Little Room Upstairs before, every little unsettling wheeze of the Witches could be heard, but here in the bigger room, they were softer and less ominous-sounding. By the end of Act II, actors were noted to hoarse in trying to project their voice louder without a lapel mic, sometimes competing with the loud musical score. To his credit, Andre Tiangco, who played King Duncan (as well as the Doctor in Act II), enunciated his lines clearly and projected his voice effortlessly and effectively. 


Paule and Matunan 
as Macbeth and pre-Lady Lorna Stewart

After the intermission is Act II, "Macbeth" itself, condensed into a supposedly more practical and digestible one hour and a half with no break. You can immediately feel the difference in the language used. Even if "Prelude to Macbeth" was in "heightened English," it was still far more accessible and understandable than the original Bard's English when it came to those complex verses the characters were saying.  As the actors were all more used to doing Filipino plays, they were more obviously having difficulty with Shakespeare's tongue-twisting lines of Act II than Act I. As this only the first weekend, surely this will improve further as the run progresses.

A person who did not know anything about Macbeth would probably get lost within Act II. There were simply too many events going on, too many things being said and too many characters to distinguish from each other. I do not know if I just did not hear certain important story details or they were lost in the abridgment process. 

For one thing, I don't recall it being explained why was it Macbeth became the King upon Duncan's death. I know that this was foretold by the witches, but what happened to Prince Malcolm, the king's son? This part was not clear. Also, was it explained why Macduff was able to kill Macbeth even as the witches advised that Macbeth no one "born of a woman" could harm him? Of course I know the explanation, but I did not hear it during the cacophonous din of the final fight scene that drowned out the dialogue. 


Paule and Kanapi 
as Macbeth and his Lady


Another confusing aspect in Act II was the casting of the wonderfully quirky Mailes Kanapi as Lady Macbeth. Ordinarily, this casting choice would be genius, and indeed Ms. Kanapi came up with an outstandingly subtle performance. That sleepwalking scene of hers is faultless! However, side by side with a Macbeth played by still young-looking Paul Jake Paule, with only facial fair painted on to make him look older, there is a very obvious age discrepancy. This was made more puzzling since this Act II followed an Act I where Lorna was played by a very young Ms. Matunan. Not to discredit Mr. Paule's efforts, but maybe Ms. Kanapi should have been paired with a more senior actor as Macbeth. Or Mr. Paule with a younger Lady Macbeth.

For those who know Macbeth by heart though, the staging of Act II was very imaginatively staged by director Roeder Camanag despite logistical limitations. The audience is haunted with genuinely creepy "ghost" scenes happening on and around the main stage. The omnipresent witches were a continuation of how these characters were developed in Act I Prelude and three actresses playing them (Tasha Guerrero, Princess Tucson and Jeremy Cabansag) all deserve commendation. The climactic sword fight between Macbeth and Macduff (debonair tenor Al Gatmaitan) was very energized and exhilarating as staged. Kudos to choreographer Myra Beltran for the dynamism of these scenes which kept the audience up and interested throughout despite the challenging text.


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"M Episode" will run  at Artist Playground II Arts Above located at the 4th floor of the West Venue Bldg. (a green and white building housing the BIR Office beside Mc Donald's, with the St. Vincent's School across the street), 112 West Avenue, Quezon City. 

Show dates are: June 16 , 23, 30 & July 1 - 7 pm; June 17, 18, 24, 25 & July 1 - 3 pm. Tickets are at P500 each, with discounts for students, available on Ticketworld or on site. For more information, visit Artist Playground’s website at https://www.artistplayground.ph/ or contact 09759193179.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Recap of BRITNEY SPEARS: PIECE OF ME TOUR Live in Manila

June 16, 2017




During the late 1990s, a couple of girl Mouseketeers from the Mickey Mouse Club graduated into full-fledged pop stars. One was more known for her strong voice -- Christina Aguilera. We have seen Christina live in concert in Manila before and were indeed bowled over with her amazing vocal range. The other one is more known for her controversial image -- Britney Spears. She had never been to Manila ever, until this year. Therefore, this "Piece of Me" concert tour of hers (her Las Vegas residency concert) at the MOA Arena was all sold out within the first day of ticket sales.

When I bought our tickets in the second week, the Gen Ad seats were almost sold out except for sections 504 and 515. I bought them even though I was told that this was already beside the stage. When we went to the MOA Arena, it turns out both 515 and 516 on one side (and 504 and 505 across it) were really not good because the view of the stage was significantly obstructed by the lights and sound systems. We also could not see the LED backdrop properly, nor the big screens beside the stage. Next time, if there was a choice, I would probably pass on watching a show in those sections, unless of course, I desperately want to see the artist.


Our terrible view of the stage
Should they really sell these seats at regular price?

The concert began very energetically, with the song "Work Bitch" (#12, 2013) in which Britney Spears (in her big blond shaggy hairdo and gold and glittery costume) and her dancers set the pace for the rest of the show. This was followed by one of her Number 1 songs "Womanizer" (#1, 2008) then quickly followed by "Piece of Me" (#18, 2007, the title song of the tour in which she famously mentioned the Philippines in the lyrics.)

The next segment began with the dancers wearing black capes and waving them like wings, with the backdrop of bats flying. Then Britney appeared in red, unexpectedly singing her very first Number 1 song, "...Baby One More Time" (#1, 1998)! She then followed this with another one of her early hits "Ooops! I Did It Again" (#9, 2000). Actually, for me, these were the songs I most wanted to hear, so I was already very happy even at that point. (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO)


Britney in fit fine form!

The rest of the concert would be a blurred series of a fit and sexy Britney dancing with her fit and sexy dancers -- "Gimme More" (#3, 2007), "Scream & Shout" (#3, 2012, with will.i.am on the big screen), "Boys", "Do Somethin'" (with some neat choreography with chairs), "Circus" (#3, 2008, with circus props of course), "Touch of My Hand" (danced up front the catwalk with two male dancers, CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO), the controversially titled "If You Seek Amy" (#19, 2009), and other breathy, writhy songs that only Britney can deliver. (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO)

For "I'm a Slave 4 U" (#27, 2001), she had a pole onstage, but she just walked and sashayed around it, and did not really get up on it. (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO) For "Freakshow", they got someone from the audience to be walked on all fours by Britney, but they picked some Caucasian guy from Hawaii for this part, not a Filipino guy. She displayed some of her hiphop moves to some Missy Elliot hits like "Work It" and "Get Ur Freak On." 

Throughout all of this strenuous dancing, I don't remember hearing Britney gasping for breath when she "sang". I guess it is most probably true that she was lip-syncing her songs. However that did not really matter that much to her hardcore fans because her dance showmanship was absolutely riveting. Anyhow, we did hear her real voice. When she greeted the audience once in a while, her voice was unexpectedly shrill and high-pitched. 


Britney and her circus props

In the final suite, Britney began to sing a slowed down version of "Toxic" (#9, 2004) to the excitement of the crowd, which eventually sped up to the upbeat version we were all familiar with. This was followed by "Stronger" (#11, 2000) then "(You Drive Me) Crazy" (#10, 1999), a sequence which got everyone up on their feet. (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO) She acknowledged her dancers and her band, took her bows and left the stage to loud clamors of an encore.

Of course, she came back out again to the engage the crowd one last time with "Till the World Ends" (#3, 2011, CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO). After she danced through the confetti and said her goodbyes, the house lights were turned on and the concert was over. Because of our terrible seats, we could not fully enjoy the show as we would have in better located seats. The sound quality in our area was also not good. There were some songs I was waiting for, but did not hear, like "Sometimes," "Everytime" and "Lucky" (which a group of fans sang in the lobby after the show, probably in disappointment). 



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Recap of REP: 50 YEARS OF TELLING STORIES: Golden Glory

June 11, 2017




Tonight, Repertory Philippines (REP) staged a musical gala show in celebration of their 50th anniversary of existence. I had been a long time fan and supporter of REP since their days at the William J. Shaw Theater at the Shangri-La Mall in the 1990s. More recently, I watched and reviewed almost all their shows in the last five years at least when they were already playing in Onstage in Greenbelt 1 Makati. 

I had a personal close encounter with REP a few years back when our department availed of a Rep Showstoppers package to celebrate World Voice Day back maybe 10 years ago. I got to sing a duet of "Lily's Eyes" (from "The Secret Garden") with then Rep actor, now Red Turnip pioneer Rem Zamora. Because of this, I also actually had a chance to sing in front of Ms. Baby Barredo herself! The other Rep members I met and interacted with that time were Karla Gutierrez, Cathy Asanza, Felix Rivera, Jack Salud, JM Rodriguez, Liesl Batucan and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. 

I knew I had to be there to witness this historic event so I promptly purchased a couple of tickets for me and my wife to ensure that we will be there at the Theater at Solaire for this occasion. Last month, I tried my luck on an online promo by Theater Fans of Manila who asked to post four three favorite Rep shows on FB. Luckily, I was one of the winners, so I was able to bring a couple of our kids with us to watch this special show. The FB post that won me those two tickets was the following:

The three the most memorable Rep shows that I had seen were:
1. Les Miserables (1993) - It was the grandest local production of a Broadway hit show that I had ever seen, with an amazing all-Filipino cast (including Cocoy Laurel and Menchu Lauchengco) That majestic revolving barricade scene was unforgettable. 
2. Portrait of the Artist as Filipino (2009) - Old pre-war Manila charmingly came alive on stage in this nostalgic piece by Nick Joaquin about the Marasigan sisters (played by Ana Abad Santos and Liesl Batucan).
3. The Producers (2013) - Perfectly encapsulated Rep's impeccable mastery of the musical comedy genre. This was a hilariously outrageous show featuring the triple threat talents of Topper Fabregas and Audie L Gemora.

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The concert began promptly at 8 pm with a welcome speech by REP President and CEO, Mindy Barredo-Perez Rubio. She proudly shared that this show is the 444th production ever staged by REP. She confessed that she was disappointed when REP only won one award during the last Gawad Buhay awards last May. However, her sister Baby Barredo and Joy Virata quickly cheered her up by making her realize that all the other winners were actually from Rep, and they were right.

The show began with a Prologue, dubbed "50 Years of Telling Stories" directed by Jaime del Mundo and choreographed by Dexter Santos. With the song "Why We Tell the Story" (from "Once on this Island") behind them, Rep veterans Joy Virata, Noel Trinidad, EJ Villacorta, Enchang Kaimo and Celia Diaz Laurel tell the audience about the mission of Repetory Philippines to tell stories via stage performance.


REP pioneers Leo Martinez and Baby Barredo

Suite 1 was entitled "The Dreamers," directed by Miguel Faustmann. Of the five founders of REP, Baby Barredo and Leo Martinez took the stage last night to recount their early stories. They, and other Rep veterans like Jorge Ortoll and Anton Juan, took us back to the very beginning in 1967 when REP staged a production of Strinberg's "Miss Julie" in Filipino in front of an audience of seven, with cast and crew unpaid. Songs sung during this segment were "The Impossible Dream" (sung by Audie Gemora and Michael Williams), and a grand production number of "Tradition" (from Bibot Amador's favorite musical, "Fiddler on the Roof").

Suite 2 was entitled "The Tellers," directed by Audie Gemora. This was about the actors, how they should not only be able to act, but also sing and dance, or a least act like they know how to sing and dance. Several song and dance numbers were featured here, like "I Hope I Get It" (from "A Chorus Line"), "America" (from "West Side Story"), "Camp Rock" (with Morissette and Markki Stroem) and an elegant ballet pas de deux to the tune of "If I Loved You" (from "Carousel"). This concluded with a catchy jazzy production number "One" (also from "A Chorus Line"). (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO


"Magic to Do" with Menchu Lauchengo-Yulo and the ensemble

After a 15-minute intermission, Suite 3 began, entitled "The Artisans: The Creatives" directed by Raymond Lauchengco. Ms. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo paid tribute to all the Lighting Designers, Costume Designers and Set Designers who have worked with Rep, and their invaluable contributions in making the magic come alive on stage with their artistry. Ms. Menchu then led the ensemble in singing the song that permeated through this whole segment of the show -- "Magic to Do" (from "Pippin"). (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO)

Suite 4 was entitled "The Hands: The Unsung Heroes", directed, written and directed by Freddie Santos. This part paid tribute to the unseen stage manager and the rest of backstage crew, the original men in black. Pinky Amador and Jeremy Domingo led a team to act out what happens backstage during a stage production. There was a recurrent joke about an annoying sound while the show was going on. Later, Santos confessed that he was once guilty of ripping paper for confetti for a show and it was heard throughout the auditorium. The segment ended with Mitch Valdez singing and dancing "Comedy Tonight" (from "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum") with four guys.


"Comedy Tonight" with Mitch Valdez and her escorts

Suite 5 was entitled "The Interpreters: The Directors" directed by Michael Williams. This segment was narrated by Bart Guingona, swathed in a sea of rays of golden light. The tribute to the past and present directors of REP was punctuated by a moving rendition of "Finishing the Hat" (from "Sunday in the Park with George") sung by Guingona, with snippets of other dramatic songs sung in counterpoint by six ladies all wearing elegant gowns in bright primary colors.  Carla Guevara Laforteza (in yellow) and Caisa Borromeo (in red) sang "I Wanna Make Magic" (from "Fame"), Cathy Azanza-Dy (in periwinkle) and Sheila Francisco (in teal) sang "I Can See It" (from "Fantastiks"), while Pinky Amador (in fuchsia) and Morissette Amon (in green) sang "This Is The Moment" (from "Jekyll & Hyde")..

This was followed by an "In Memoriam" segment introduced by Topper Fabregas, and accompanied by a haunting duet entitled "Some Things are Meant to Be" (from "Little Women") sung beautifully by Liesl Batucan and Becca Coates. The tribute list began with Ms. Zeneida "Bibot" Amador, followed by personalities both on and behind the stage. It ended with the recent departures of beloved Rep messenger Danilo Mirasol and singer/actor Eugene Villaluz. (CLICK TO PLAY VIDEO)


Joy Virata and the colorful RTYA gang of characters

Suite 6 was entitled "Storytelling Realized" about the Repertory Theater for Young Audiences, directed by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. This segment was lovingly narrated by none other than the indefatigable founder, heart and soul of RTYA, Ms. Joy Virata. She then led an animated ensemble dressed in colorful costumes from past RTYA shows for the song "Oh, the Thinks You Can Think!" (from "Seussical").

The seventh and final suite was entitled "REP Rising". This segment began with a stirring solo number by long-missed Rep favorite Monique Wilson, singing "The Story Goes On" (from "Baby"). Young Jillian Ita-as joined Ms. Wilson in the second verse to bring the song on a high note. (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO). 

Then all the performers from the whole show gathered on centerstage to render the ever-show-stopping "One Day More" (from "Les Miserables"). It was great to see the original cast led by Cocoy Laurel, Gemora, Wilson, Williams, Zamora, Faustmann and Virata sing the first verses, then symbolically giving way to a newer generation of performers including Joaquin Valdez, Red Nuestro, Becca Coates, Caisa Borromeo, and Myke Salomon. The audience was up on their feet with a deservedly long and rousing ovation to congratulate cast and crew for a show well done. (CLICK TO WATCH VIDEO)

The whole evening concluded with a rendition of the new REP Anthem "Come Home to Rep" written by  EJ Yatco. This song was sung by all the directors of the show Santos, del Mundo, Faustmann, Gemora, the Lauchengco siblings and Williams. I was very happy to have seen Repertory Philippines bask in their golden glory tonight. Kudos to overall stage director Guingona, head writer Luna Grino Inocian, musical director Yatco, all the segment directors and stage manager, the entire cast of talents and crew. I look forward to seeing them tell more stories in the years to come.