Monday, July 22, 2019

Track by Track: BINONDO: A TSINOY MUSICAL Original Cast Recording

July 23, 2019

"Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical" (MY REVIEW) had a limited four-show re-run at the Solaire during the weekend of July 12 -14, 2019. In time with that restaging, the producers decided to release an original cast recording CD to immortalize the songs Von de Guzman wrote for the show. Book and lyrics were credited to Ricky Lee, Gershom Chua and Eljay Castro Deldoc, with additional lyrics by Von de Guzman and Joel Lamangan. For the CD, we hear the solid evocative voices of Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Arman Ferrer singing the songs of Lily and Ah Tiong, unless otherwise stated. 

Here are my thoughts about the 12 songs included in the CD, as I try to recall the scenes of the show again in my head when I hear them. The last time I watched the show was a whole year ago (was unable to catch the rerun), please pardon any lapses in my memory.


It is the Moon Festival and the people are out celebrating in the streets of Chinatown in Binondo. Filipina nightclub singer Lily had her fortune told in the Chinese temple, and the Chinese moon god Ge Lao sees love in her future. This happy opening number set the stage for the love story about to unfold.


Lily was singing this Chinese song in the Binondo nightclub where she worked, when Ah Tiong walked in an got hopelessly smitten. I have to credit the three lead singers for sounding authentic in pronouncing the tricky Chinese phonetics. Kudos to dialect coach!  This version of the song had lines of Filipino translation lyrics that alternated with the original Chinese lyrics. Since I knew this song by heart since childhood, this new variation took some getting used to for me, but I understand this was done to convey the full message of the song to the Filipino audience. 


This was the song where Ah Tiong was walking around the empty streets of Binondo after the club thinking about this pretty girl Lily he just met that night. It was in this song where he revealed that he had actually been betrothed by his parents to a local girl named Jasmin. The whole song was actually an internal debate of Ah Tiong within himself. Should he remain loyal to Jasmine waiting for him in China, or should he pursue his interest of courting Lily? The answer should be obvious to all of us, but as a romantic hero, Ah Tiong was a flawed man. Faithfulness and fortitude were not his strong points. 


This song sung by Noel Rayos as Carlos, while not really totally within the romance plot, has a message that resonates among the Chinoy audiences. Carlos was a Chinoy, born and raised in Binondo. This song was Carlos way of expressing that his loyalty and patriotism lay with his country of birth, the Philippines, and not China. This is a very timely song, especially now. It reflected the inner sentiment of most Chinoys now as Chinese nationals from the mainland overrun the city. The Chinoys want to make clear that they are Filipinos by heart, and they should not be lumped as one together with the foreigners. 


Lily and Carlos had known each other since they were children, and Carlos had always been her reliable friend during times of need. Lily and Carlos are singing this song together, however, they have a different message to tell each other. Carlos loves her and wants their relationship to go to the next level. Lily loves Carlos too, but alas, only as a friend. The way this song was built up to that painful ending, this is was probably the saddest songs in the whole musical. It is not easy to accept that the person you desire to be your partner for life is relegating to the friend-zone. In this track, it was Floyd Tena's voice we hear giving life to Carlos' unrequited longing.


This song was a welcome upbeat change of pace in the middle of the show. This cheerful song celebrated the intensely giddy joy being experienced by Lily and Ah Tiong. These two young people falling madly in love with each other, such that they felt both their hearts were dancing to the thrilling beats of a disco song. This was a fun part of the show, in that the singer-actors also get to show off their dancing skills while belting out the song, which is definitely not an easy feat to achieve. This was the only song in this CD that featured the voices of Carla Guevarra-Laforteza and David Ezra singing as Lily and Ah Tiong.


The title alone tells the full story of this song. This song is a cautionary message by Lily's mother after she learned that her daughter was falling in love with a Chinese man Ah Tiong. The warning was not only one about their differences in their nationality and culture, but also about their differences in social standing. Mrs. de la Rosa wants to make Lily realize that she was going into a relationship which was fraught with so much uncertainty such that being hurt was already so certain from the get go. The message of the song may be predictable, but this was a master showcase for the powerhouse vocals of Ms. Ima Castro.


Ah Tiong needed to go back to China and this song was a countdown to that moment when he was leaving on a plane. In one of the cheesiest (sorry) yet so earnestly-delivered lines in the script, we hear Ah Tiong telling Lily that he will inform his parents how he had found his eternal love in the Chinatown of Manila. He promised Lily he will definitely come back and never again leave her side. It was ironic that while the two lovers sang of spending eternity together, they were actually about to part for good. This song closes Act 1 with a highly memorable scene where director Joel Lamangan and his tech crew were able to achieve stage magic with the dramatic illusion of Ah Tiong boarding an airplane as Lily was left behind tearfully waving goodbye -- a truly cinematic moment in the show. 


After Ah Tiong left, Lily soon realized that she was with child. She never knew that Ah Tiong is trapped in China because of the ongoing Cultural Revolution by Chairman Mao Tse Tung. In this song, Lily is already resigning to the fact that Ah Tiong is most probably never coming back and that she had to face a future of raising her baby on her own. This song featured Shiela's crystalline voice at its most exquisite as she navigated the painful frustration and hopelessness that underlie its sad lyrics. She will carry this depression as a thorn in her heart until it eventually took a heavy toll on her health.


Jasmine was very sincere when she sang about Ah Tiong being her first and the last love. But who was Ah Tiong singing about when he sang these same lyrics? Was it really Jasmine whom he was embracing on that park bench? Or was he in fact singing about his faraway Lily in Manila? Or was it both of them he loved equally? Moral dilemma notwithstanding, this was my absolute favorite song in the whole CD melodically and arrangements-wise. This was the song I try to sing along to, even if I really couldn't because of the very high notes. Mariella Laurel and Arman harmonize beautifully together here as Jasmine and Ah Tiong. The erhu (Chinese violin) and Chinese percussion made this song even more distinct and authentic. 


This song is sung by Ruby, the daughter of Lily, now a high school student. This is about her acknowledging her mother's surprise revelation on her sickbed. Carlos, the father Ruby knew all her life, is not her biological father. Instead it is this stranger who just came in to visit that day, Ah Tiong. Ashlee Mickaela Factor imbued this song with youthful idealism and innocence. I wondered about the title of the track I recall that this song is but a part of a longer song number which included Ah Tiong begging for Lily's forgiveness for being unable to fulfill his promises.


For the finale, the streets of Binondo are again alive with another big festival. It is Chinese New Year and the whole cast assembled on the stage for one final extravaganza production number amidst all the usual trappings of Orientalia with energetically spectacular results. All's well that ends well as all the characters move on with their lives following Lily's tragic passing, and hope shines eternal for a good future ahead for everyone. 

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Review of STOP KISS (2019): Break in the Bliss

July 13, 2019

American playwright Diana Son's 1998 play "Stop Kiss" is about two women who lived in New York City. Callie is a bored cynical TV traffic reporter. Sara is an idealistic elementary school teacher in the Bronx. They became close friends after their first meeting despite their disparate personalities and backgrounds. One early morning at 4 am, they were assaulted by an unknown man on the streets of West Village. While one of them escaped with minor injuries, the other ended up comatose in the ICU.

This is not the first time "Stop Kiss" is being staged in Manila. The New Voice Company, known for its advocacy of women's issues with feminist plays like David Mamet's "Oleanna" and Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," first tackled this play in 2003. This year, new player in theater production Positive Space, in cooperation with MusicArtes, Inc. and New Voice Company, brings back "Stop Kiss" again.

In the 2003 run, Jenny Jamora played the role of Callie, while Missy Maramara played the role of Sara. This year, 16 years later, Jamora and Maramara are back in these roles once again, but each in the other's role. The way Maramara and Jamora inhabited the roles of Callie and Sara respectively this time around was so like second skin for both them, I could not imagine one in the other role at all. This switch casting was a testament to their versatility as actresses. I was wishing they would actually switch cast within this same run. 

Sara (Jamora) and Callie (Maramara) talk on the couch
Photo credit: Adrian Christopher Cancio 
(from Stop Kiss press kit)

The first time I've seen Missy Maramara perform was in an emotionally-devastating one-woman show was just last year in Dulaang UP's "Ang Dalagita'y Sang Bagay na Di Buo." Since then, she was on a roll with marked roles in "The Dressing Room" and "The Kundiman Party" (both also with DUP), and "The Dresser" (with Repertory Philippines). In between, she took on the directorial chores for Blue Rep's topnotch production of "Spring Awakening" and got through it with flying colors. 

As Callie, Maramara was in practically all the scenes as they switched from flashback to present day with the mere slide of a wall to delineate the change in time setting. This would necessitate Maramara to switch emotions from dark to light and back within seconds, and impressively, she was more than able to do so effortlessly it seemed. Having been a New Yorker for 11 years now, Callie was already jaded with how her life was going, until Sara came along like a bright ray of sunshine.

The first time I've seen Jenny Jamora perform was in 2005 at the now defunct Republic of Malate in the New Voice Company production of David Hare's "The Blue Room." Fast forward to the present, Jamora is one of the theater actor-directors comprising the Red Turnips, with whom she had an acclaimed stint as the director of "33 Variations." This year, she directed "Every Brilliant Thing" with Sandbox Collective" and reprised her role of the liberated Tita Mitch in "The Kundiman Party" (a role she alternated with Maramara).

As Sara, Jamora needed to project authenticity as a zealously dedicated school teacher. She was a bit on the quixotic side as she strove to break free from the comfort zone she knew her whole life in laidback St. Louis, Missouri, in order to teach (and make a difference) in a notoriously rough public school in the Bronx.  Jamora was able to bring out that sense of naivete and idealism which enamored her to Callie and to us. Delicate and vulnerable, Jamora made us care for Sara, and made us want to take care of her. 

Missy Maramara and Jenny Jamora at the curtain call
El Tayech, Guveara, Glorioso and Mercado behind them

The rest of the cast played characters peripheral to the lives of Callie and Sara. Tarek El Tayech stole his scenes as George, Callie's easygoing friend with benefit. Robbie Guevara played Detective Cole assigned to investigate the assault case, while Jay Valencia-Glorioso played the excitable Mrs. Winsley, a witness to the attack. Gabe Mercado felt miscast as Sara's estranged boyfriend Peter, as I initially though he was Sara's dad. J-Mee Katanyag played a Nurse in the hospital scenes.

Ed Lacson Jr. outdid himself in this project as he took on the hats of both director and set designer. The ingenious sliding front wall Lacson devised was instrumental in his storytelling, as the scenes alternated from past to present back and forth, depicting blissful happy moments between girls in their apartment, alternating with the grim depressing post-assault scenes in the hospital. With Teresa Barrozo's subtle music score and Jethro Nibaten's enhancing light design, Lacson made these major scene transitions feel smooth and easy, like watching the story unfold on a television screen. Pacing may feel a bit long in the second act, but as a whole, this was one compelling play to watch.


"Stop Kiss" plays at the Power mac Center Spotlight Theater in Circuit Makati for two weekends, July 12-14, and July 19-21, 2019. Showtimes are at 8 pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with 3 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets priced at P2,000 and P1,000.