Thursday, July 19, 2018

Recap and Videos: CELINE DION MANILA LIVE 2018: Bombastic Belter, Dramatic Diva

July 20, 2018

I first knew of Celine Dion back in the early 1990s when she reached the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 with the song "Where Does My Heart Beat Now". She would then follow that up with hit after hit as she became one of the divas that ruled the charts in the 1990s. She would eventually have regular shows in Las Vegas, including a five-year residency at Caesar's Palace. 

Ms. Dion was first scheduled to visit Manila back in November 2014. Unfortunately, she had to cancel her whole Asian tour because of her husband's delicate health condition. When it was announced that her long-awaited concert was pushing through this year, the tickets went fast, selling out on the first day. This prompted organizers to open a second night to satisfy the great demand. 

Because of the heavy traffic caused by the rains, we arrived at the MOA Arena almost 8:30 pm already. Lucky for us, there was a guest front act, who was later introduced as Veronique. We only caught her singing her final song, "I Will Always Love You" a la Whitney Houston. She is a very good singer, too bad we missed her other songs. 

Glittering Celine Dion!

The concert proper started at around 9 pm with the audience whooping it up in excited anticipation.  Wearing a golden Las Vegas showman outfit, Celine Dion's first song was a big one right off the bat, her #1 1994 cover of "Power of Love." Her next song was my personal favorite Celine song from 1999, "That's the Way It Is" (VIDEO). After her initial spiel, she sang her 2002 European hit song "I'm Alive," which automatically segued into another big #1 hit "Because You Loved Me." Celine's voice was effortless in singing those high notes in her signature style, which Filipino audience loved. We cheered every time she nailed a power note, or struck one of her poses. Her spiels showed her kooky sense of humor which endeared her more to her fans. 

Celine and her back-up singer duet on "Beauty and the Beast"

There was an interlude of dramatic lights and music to usher Celine coming in wearing a black ballroom gown to sing the next song which was the ultra-theatrical Jim Steinman song "It's All Coming Back to Me Now" (VIDEO). The video backdrop then changed into a sparkling golden chandelier as Celine began to sing the next song Alan Menken's "Beauty and the Beast," which she later said was the first of many movie theme songs she sang. She then proceeded to comically tell the story of how fellow Canadian Ryan Reynolds wrote her a letter to invite her to sing the song "Ashes" for his new movie "Deadpool 2."

Celine jams with her guitarist

After a musical interlude featuring the guitarist, Celine came out wearing another long gown. A male dancer followed her out on the stage, and at one point, he removed the long overskirt to reveal a colorful mini-dress. Celine and partner slinked and samba'ed sexily while she was singing "Falling into You." Her next song was "The Reason" (written by Carole King), followed by "Pour que tu m'aimes encore" (her biggest hit in French in 1995), then "Recovering" (written by Pink for Celine during the death of her husband). The final song of the set was a crowd favorite, Celine's bombastic version of Eric Carmen's "All by Myself" (VIDEO).

Celine shows off her dancing skills

The musical interlude this time featured the cello and the viola player. They were later joined on center stage by two more violinists. Celine came in wearing a short off-shoulder black dress with hair in a ponytail. With only the string quartet accompanying her, she sang Janis Ian's "At Seventeen," which segued to her own hit "A New Day Has Come". Her back-up singers then joined in to sing "Unison" (title song of her first English language album in 1990. Celine ended this set with another crowd-favorite, "To Love You More" (VIDEO) which she sang with one violinist beside her for dramatic impact. I was half-expecting Sarah Geronimo to come out and join her, but of course, that fantasy did not come to pass. 

Celine belts out!

After another interlude, Celine came out wearing a silver glittery rocker chick outfit with hot pink shoulder and waist accents. With her stage bathed in purple light, Celine launched into her unexpected tribute to Prince with her covers of two of his biggest hits "Kiss" and "Purple Rain." Continuing the upbeat momentum, the next song was her 1992 gospel-flavored hit "Love Can Move Mountains." Next was her cover of "River Deep, Mountain High," which explained why she was dressed like Tina Turner for this set. These songs showed off Celine's versatility in musical genres aside from the ballad for which she was more known. She then thanked the audience for coming as the house lights dimmed down. 

Celine's touching farewell

Of course, the audience clamored for more, and Celine returned onstage wearing a simple white evening gown with a flowing fuchsia wrap on the right side. The concert will simply not be complete without her ethereal "Titanic" hit, "My Heart Will Go On" (VIDEO). Celine made another attempt to say goodbye, but the audience applause and cheering made her stop and wipe tears from her eyes. She then obliged to sing one more final song, her cover of Elvis Presley ballad "Can't Help Falling in Love" (VIDEO) in glorious a capella, with only her pure diva vocals to send the audience off fully satisfied and thankful for a great show.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Review of VIRGIN LABFEST XIV - SET C: The Shrill. The Shocking. The Sweet.

July 8, 2018

Set C of VLF XIV is composed of three strong, well-written one-act plays. Any one or more of them can be in the running for the Revisited Set for next year.


Written by: Ma. Cecilia "Maki" dela Rosa
Directed by: Jose Estrella and Issa Manalo Lopez

The setting was a busy labor room of a public hospital. Veh was a nervous 22-year old who was about to deliver her first baby. Two ladies were there awaiting curettage for a miscarriage: Nay already had many children in a row before, Ate never carried a pregnancy to term. While Dr. Jean and her Nurse were attending to them, two more pregnant women both already about to give birth any moment come in to join in the fracas. 

This play brought me back to the OB admitting section of the UP-PGH where I had spent a number of memorably chaotic and dramatic 24-hour duties, with scenes exactly like the ones depicted or even worse. Writer Maki dela Rosa must have consulted and observed with an OB who trained in a public hospital to come up with such authentic script which was so funny, so witty, yet so heartwarming and affecting.

All the actresses playing the patients tended to be over-the-top noisy, but that was how these scenes unfold for real. Hariette Damole's expressive eyes betrayed Veh's fears. Sheryll Ceasico played that loud busybody character Nay delightfully. Skyzx Labastilla's Ate had a more serious tone because of her inability to bear children. Opaline Santos (finally I get to see her in action) was the typical whiny attention-hound. Ina Azarcon-Bolivar let her inability to pay get in the way of better judgement.

J-mee Katanyag perfectly captured the authority Dr. Jean needed to project to keep everything under her control. Kiki Baento reminded us of our dear nurses who maintain order and carry out orders in the labor room. Sherry Lara played a small but marked role as the janitress who waxed nostalgic about gossip she overheard while working. These are the characters which make the OB labor room run efficiently despite the stressful flurry of activities a steady stream of screaming moms-to-be brings up.


Written by: JV Ibesate
Directed by: Olive Nieto

Neil came back to their family home after 20 years of incarceration for a crime he committed against a student when he worked as a teacher before. Meeting him at home was his younger brother Norman who had been leading a tough life on his own, bearing on his shoulders the bitter stigma of his brother's crime all these years.

This is another one of those plays that need a SPOILER ALERT. It is preferable that you should not know the ending when you go watch it, so you can be properly shocked as the author intended it. JV Ibesate, who just won a Best Actor award at the Gawad Buhay last year, now adds VLF playwright to his credentials. That twisted twist of an ending came from completely out of left field to stun all unsuspecting audiences.

Arnold Reyes is a movie actor, but I had seen him act on stage before (in VLF XII, as MLQ, and as Valmont). Reyes is back in VLF XIV in another controlled and daring performance here as ex-con Neil. Acey Aguilar, whom I've seen twice before (in VLF XI and as a bad cop), looks more mature now than I remembered him. He matched Reyes' daring in his portrayal, but his character had a more damaged, vulnerable persona. Together they wrapped the stage with uncomfortable vibes the whole time, until that startling jaw-dropping surprise that would jar your sensibilities.


Written by: Juan Ekis
Directed by: Eric Villanueva dela Cruz

Peds and Tisha are senior citizens who joined a stage acting workshop. The scene assigned to them involves a kissing scene. Tisha cannot seem to accept that a scene like needed to be done. However, when Peds teased her about her chickening out, Tisha was challenged to prove she is a professional. Can she?

The situation in this comedy is very simple, and can be conveyed in a single sentence. However, writer Juan Ekis was able to stretch this stark plot into a rich and charming character study of two elderly people who are exploring new things and expanding their experiences in their old age. 

This worked mainly because of the sharp comic timing of the two veteran actors, namely Bembol Roco as Pebs and Sherry Lara as Tisha. For this VLF XIV, both are doing double duties. Roco is actually acting in another two-hander "Rosas" in Set B aside from this one. Lara was just seen earlier this same set as one of the ensemble of actresses in "Labor Room." Roco was more upbeat and on point in his portrayal as Pebs here than he was in "Rosas." His Pebs is a old gentleman, but still had that naughty rascal in him. Lara is really a delight playing the sweet and demure Tisha, donning that hilarious Oriental head-dress of hers. Their zippy repartee had the audience in stitches as we waited whether that elusive kiss will ever happen or not.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Review of BINONDO: A TSINOY MUSICAL: Celebrating the Chinese-Filipino Connection

July 2, 2018

In 1986, a Chinese professor related to Ms. Rebecca Shangkuan Chuaunsu his personal love story. The poignant drama of his story stuck with her from that time on. More than 30 years afterwards, Ms. Chuaunsu boldly took on the reins of creative producer, to spark the creation of an original Filipino musical to share that same haunting story with the everyone. This year, her major labor of love finally reached its fruition as "Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical" makes its world premiere on the stage of The Theater at Solaire last weekend.

The year was 1972, on the occasion of the Moon Festival. A Chinese scholar named Ah Tiong, then on a 2-week vacation, dropped into the Lotus Club in Manila. There, he was mesmerized with the beauty of Lily, the featured singer on stage that night. When Lily fumbles on the lyrics of a Chinese song, Ah Tiong gamely went on stage to sing it with her. From that moment was born a resolute love that would face insurmountable adversity. 

"The Moon Represents My Heart"
with Carla Guevara-Laforteza (as Lily)

The role of Lily was played by two of the most-sought after leading ladies in the local theater scene -- Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Carla Guevara-Laforteza. I had been able to see both of them become Lily in separate shows, and I saw that they imbued the character with distinct personalities. Shiela's Lily was sweeter and demure. Carla's Lily was more spirited and feisty. In either case, it was not difficult to see why both Ah Tiong fell head over heels in love with her. As excellent singers, both ladies had no trouble navigating the challenging songs Lily had to sing, like "Dito sa Binondo" and "Paghihintay."

"Ang Pag-ibig ay Disco"
with David Ezra and Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (as Ah Tiong and Lily)

Ah Tiong was played by David Ezra. This award-winning singer-actor had his stage debut only in 2015, but is now a most in-demand leading man in several shows since then. The role of Ah Tiong was given a lot of difficult songs with soaring notes to sing, like "Kung Sino Nga Bang Una ay Siya Ring Huli". In the upbeat number, "Ang Pag-ibig ay Disco", he had to show off his dancing skills while singing, always a big challange to pull off for any performer. Ezra's voice never faltered, always strong and passionate, in his solos, his duets (with Lily, Jasmine or Carlos), and with whole company. 

(Ezra's alternate in this role is Arman Ferrer, whose career had grown together with Ezra since they had been sharing the stage or alternating in shows like "La Estrella", "Mabining Mandirigma" and coming soon later this year, "Side Show." There is no doubt that Ferrer can likewise pull off the challenge of playing Ah Tiong.)

"Mananagot Ka"
with David Ezra and Noel Rayos (as Ah Tiong and Carlos)

The character Carlos is a Manila-born Chinese-Filipino who had been Lily's friend since childhood. He was played by Noel Rayos, a stage veteran with nearly 100 shows under his belt playing a whole gamut of diverse roles. As Carlos, he gets to show off his comic timing, as well as his dramatic chops. The role of Carlos also gets to sing some punishing songs only the best singers can deliver with confidence, like "Dayuhan sa Puso" and "Ako Ay Pilipino". I consider the latter song as one of the most significant songs in the whole show as it declared that Chinese-Filipinos are indeed true Filipinos, whose loyalty lay with the Philippines, not China -- a sentiment that rings true up to the present time.

(Rayos' alternate in this role is Floyd Tena. I had only seen in him on stage twice before, in "Maynila Sa Kuko ng Liwanag" and "Himala" in smaller roles. Too bad I missed his biggest role to date as Carlos which would really push his vocal and acting skills to the max.)

"Minamahal, Iniibig" 
with Mariella Laurel and David Ezra (as Jasmine and Ah Tiong)

Jasmine is Ah Tiong's childhood friend back in Beijing and the girl he had long been betrothed to marry by their parents. She was played by Mariella Laurel. This is the first time I had seen her onstage before and I thought she stood her ground solidly within all the brimming singing talent on that stage. Her best song for me was "May Tiwala Ako" -- a long-distance duet between her in Beijing and Lily in Manila as they profess their trust in the man they both love, Ah Tiong.

Mrs. dela Rosa, Lily's mother, was played and sung so powerfully by Ima Castro. Every time she dug into her deepest soul as she sang songs like "Tila Kandila", we are all drawn into her inner pain borne out of sincere concern for her daughter's well being. Lourdes, Lily's cousin and confidante, was ably played and sung by Jennifer Villegas-de la Cruz

Dondi Ong and Kay Balajadia-Linggayu (as Mr. and Mrs. Chua)

Mr. and Mrs. Chua, Carlos' parents, were played by noted operatic tenor Dondi Ong and soprano Kay Balajadia-Linggayu (with Carla Guevara-Laforteza alternating). It was a shame that we only get to hear them sing very short verses in the song "Hindi na Magbabago" which they sing with their son Carlos. Russell Magno and Elizabeth Chua played Mr. and Mrs. Zhang, Ah-Tiong's parents. They get to act and sing in heavier dramatic scenes of persecution in the numbers "Ang Bagong Tsina" and "Kalimutan na ang Lumang Pag-ibig".

""Kalimutan ang Lumang Pag-ibig"
with Elizabeth Chua (as Mrs. Zhang)

The key character of 14 year-old schoolgirl Ruby was played very sweetly by Ashlee Factor. Even if she only comes out in a few scenes in Act 2, she got to deliver heartwarming lines and sing one of my favorite songs in the entire show, entitled "Patawad". Her voice possessed a childlike quality which made her perfect for her small yet important role. 

with Rayos, Ashlee Factor (as Ruby), and Ezra

This play employed the device of a Greek chorus to narrate the goings-on between scenes. They were set apart from the rest of the ensemble by their more ornate costumes and make-up. They also served as conscience to various characters -- needling them, goading them, teasing them. They also got to play a number of other minor characters, either Filipino or Chinese, in the lives of our protagonists. The actors in the Chorus were Jim Pebanco, Lorenz Martinez, Khalil Kaimo, Ellrica Laguardia, Rhapsody Li and the irrepressible Tuesday Vargas with her scene-stealing antics. 

Ellrica Laguardia, Tuesday Vargas, Lorenz Martinez, 
Khalil Kaimo, Rhapsody Li and Jim Pebanco (as the Chorus)

The script is in Filipino, written by acclaimed veteran Ricky Lee, along with two younger co-writers Gershom Chua and Eljay Castro Deldoc. It eloquently wove the Fil-Chi love story tightly in the face of historical events in both Manila (Martial Law) and Beijing (Cultural Revolution). The length of the play can intimidating at three hours plus long (with a 15-minute interval in between), but thankfully Director Joel Lamangan made the flow of the scenes easy to follow, so the play was quite engaging and highly entertaining. I do think that the script can still be tweaked (especially in certain clich├ęd melodramatic scenes) so future stagings can be more streamlined. 

Last year, I was introduced to the music of Von de Guzman when I watched "Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag." His songs here in "Binondo" follow generally the same grand flowing style of musical composition. His songs were easy on the ears with their lilting melodies and smooth steady progressions which can reach stratospheric heights as they climaxed. Because of its high difficulty level, it takes a special singer to be able sing and give justice to a Von de Guzman song. Meanwhile, the vibrant choreography by Douglas Nierras certainly gave the huge production numbers involving the whole ensemble (imagine 50+ people dancing in unison) infectious verve and energy.


The big stage of the Theater at Solaire is a challenge for any production designer to fill. Otto Hernandez came up with very impressively huge set pieces which had to be easily moved in and out of stage as the scenes called for them. The concluding scene of Act 1 was a very imaginatively conceived and exectued stage illusion which involved passengers climbing up stairs to board an airplane.The opening scene of Act 2 with an enormous portrait of Chairman Mao overlooking a troop of soldiers waving red flags also had a very haunting effect as the scene depicted unjust violence. The lighting design of Joey Nombres enhanced the grandeur of the sets, as well as emotions of the scenes being depicted.

"Ang Bagong Tsina"

For several years, Ms. Rebecca Chuaunsu had the audacious vision of creating a bridge which would foster the positive values and heritage between the Philippines and China. With "Binondo," her most cherished dream had been realized in a most spectacular fashion, and I extend my hearty congratulations to her!

Ms. Rebecca Chuaunsu (third from left) 
joins her cast and crew at the curtain call

As a final note, I commend the Mandarin language coach for making the Filipino actors sound realistic in the delivery of their Chinese lines and the singing of a famous Chinese song like "The Moon Represents My Heart". However, I look forward to the day when actual Chinoy actor-singers can also get to play the roles of Ah Tiong and Carlos. While the portrayals of Ezra and Rayos of their characters in the present production are effective, I sincerely feel that it would make a significant positive difference in the overall impact of the story when the casting could somehow be more authentic.  


"Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical" opened last June 29, 2018 at the Theater at Solaire and will run for two weekends up to July 8, 2018. Showtimes are at 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices: ₱4,000 (Premium Center), ₱3,000 (Premium Side), ₱2,500 (Orchestra Center), ₱2,000 (Orchestra Side), ₱1,000 (Balcony Center) and ₱500 (Balcony Side).