Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review of THE LION KING: A Production of Pride and Pleasure!

March 22, 2018

"The Lion King" (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994) was one of the classic animated Disney films of the 1990s. Up to now, it still holds the current record for the biggest hand-drawn animated film of all time with a worldwide total gross of $766M in its initial release. It won the Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy, as well as for Musical Score (for Hans Zimmer). It won the Oscar for Best Musical Score and Best Original Song (to Elton John and Tim Rice for the song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?").

The musical theater version staged on Broadway in 1997 was also a big hit. Its director Julie Taymor had since been labelled a visionary because of the inventive use of puppetry to bring the animal characters into life. This won Tonys for Best Direction of a Musical for Julie Taymor, Best Choreography for Garth FaganBest Scenic Design for a Musical for Richard HudsonBest Costume Design for a Musical for Julie Taymor and Michael Curry, and Best Lighting Design of a Musical for Donald Holder.

After 20 years, it was announced that the international touring production of this play will finally be staged here in Manila at the Theater in Solaire. Excited Filipino theater fans welcomed this news with open hearts and wallets, with the show selling out quickly, several months before its March 2018 debut, despite the hefty ticket prices.

I tried to buy my tickets for my whole family to watch on the second day of release, yet I was only able to score seats in one upper corner of the side balcony. That was the only section left where I could get five seats in a row, so I grabbed them despite the not-so-favorable location. Therefore, this review is going to be based on where we sat last night, Seats 1-5 high up in Row SS.


The musical follows the animated film very faithfully. We recognize most of the songs and lines (and even the jokes) which were retained practically verbatim from the original script. Simba is the foolhardy son of Mufasa, King of the Pride Lands. One day, his jealous Uncle Scar arranged to have Mufasa killed, and blamed Simba for it. This guilt caused the cub to run off and leaving Scar to take over the throne. Years later, a mature Simba returned to challenge Scar and take over as the rightful King.

In this particular show, the main highlight happens right at the opening song number, “The Circle of Life”. It is here that we first see the fantastic puppet animals coming in one by one during Simba’s presentation ceremony at Pride Rock. So, coming late to this show is a big no-no, because no one will be allowed to enter the theater for the first 15 minutes once that song begins. Miss this opening number and you’ve missed the best number of the show. The moment those tall giraffes first entered the stage, followed by the birds, the cheetah, the zebras, the antelopes, the water buffalo, the rhinos, up to that massive elephant which came in from the audience area, we all gasped with awe and amazement. 

The Circle of Life
(publicity photo from The Lion King Manila FB page)

The male lead lion characters had their elaborate masks worn on their necks and suspended over their heads. Those hyenas carried their heads on their hands as they lumbered around. Zasu was a bird puppet on a stick carried around by the actor. Timon was a full-body meerkat puppet with the actor in green right behind it. Pumbaa was a huge warthog costume (with a slobbering tongue) worn by the actor playing him. There were also costumes that gracefully represented the dancing grasses of the African savanna ("Grasslands Chant"). These ingeniously-conceived and executed puppets and costumes were really the main conceit of this show. 

For the rest of the show, we looked forward to how they were going to stage all the famous songs in the film. “Be Prepared” was performed by Scar (a very slimy Antony Lawrence) and the Hyenas (delightfully disgusting Candida Mosoma, Bjorn Blignaut and Mark Tatham) on a huge set piece representing an elephant’s skeleton. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” sung by Young Simba (a spirited Gabriel P. Tiongson), Young Nala (a fiercely cute Felicity Kyle Napuli) and their feathered chaperone Zasu (a very comical Andre Jewson) had more imaginative animal puppets of more colorful designs to wow us with. 

On the other hand, “Hakuna Matata” with Timon (an irreverent Jamie McGregor) and Pumbaa (a hale and hearty Pierre Van Heerden) had a relatively empty stage, with only four balloon "trees" on the side as props. This was a bit of a disappointment especially that it was the closing number of Act 1. The moving plants decorating the “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” sung by the mature Simba (Calvin Grandlingand Nala (Noxolo Dlaminiwere also rather stagnant and felt inadequate to provide a romantic atmosphere for this song.

There were some new scenes which were not in the movie. One was "Shadowland", powerfully sung by Nala  after she was sexually harassed by a lecherous Scar in a most disturbing preceding scene. The other was "Endless Night", where Simba  sings about his father's promises. But the most impressive new song is "He Lives in You" sung by Rafiki (Ntsepa Pitjeng), which ends with spirit of Mufasa (Mthokozisi Emkay Khanyile) speaking to Simba in a most astounding piece of stage magic.

Scar vs. Mufasa
(publicity photo from The Lion King Manila FB Page)

Of course, there were some negative consequences for watching from the side balcony seats. While we can see the entire panorama of the whole stage from above, we also could clearly see big spaces between the characters, making the stage look emptier than they were intended. The emotional impact of Mufasa's death scene was not as strong as it was in the film. I'm sure these scenes would surely have looked more impressive from the Center Orchestra seats where the appreciation of stage blocking is perfect. 

There were some lull moments in the storytelling, but the powerful African rhythmic music kept the energy up. Even if the view from our seats was not ideal, the sound quality was never a problem even in our remote location in Theater in Solaire's Siberia section, so we can hear everything clearly. Some characters like Zasu and Timon frequently broke the fourth wall, and injected Tagalog words and modern pop culture references (like "Frozen") in their lines to the delight of the audience. Overall it was a fun show to watch, and nostalgic for us fans of the animated film, kids and adults alike.


"The Lion King" runs at the Theater at Solaire from March 18 to May 6, 2018. Show schedules are: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 8:00pm, Saturdays and Sundays 2:30pm & 8:00pm. The show runs for approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes, with a 20 minute intermission. Tickets are priced at P6,500, 5,500, 4,300, 3,350 and 1,900 for weekday shows; and P7,250, 5,850, 4,700, 3,300 and 2,250. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review of National Theater's Touring Production of THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: Multi-sensory Marvel

March 18, 2018

In 2003, "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" was a critically-acclaimed book written by British writer Mark Haddon. 10 years later, Simon Stephens adapted Haddon's story into a similarly critically-acclaimed play. Its 2013 West End run won 7 Olivier Awards. Its 2014 Broadway run won 5 Tony Awards. In both awards shows, it won Best Play, Director and Lead Actor, as well as Lighting and Set Designs. 

I had read the book and liked it, so I was very curious about how it could be transformed into a play. The opportunity to go watch the play came late last year when it was announced that the same production by the National Theater of Great Britain was going to be staged as part of the Hong Kong Arts Festival. Knowing the popularity of the play, I immediately booked a ticket to go watch and planned a day trip to HK for that sole purpose. That day finally came last Sunday, March 11. 

Christopher Boone is a 15-year old boy, a mathematics whiz kid with autism-like behavior, who lived in a suburban town of Swindon. One night, he sees Wellington, the dog of his neighbor Mrs. Shears, killed with a garden fork. Despite the admonitions of his father Ed, Christopher went around the neighborhood to investigate who could have done the crime. Instead, Christopher discovers hidden truths about his very family, which would lead him to a harrowing solo train trip to London on a personal quest for love and safety. 

The set by Bunny Christie was seemingly just a simple black box open on the top and in front. The walls were checked with white lines. There was a dead "dog" lying at the center of the floor. Without warning, the play began suddenly with a burst of loud music and all the lines on the black box burst into strobe lights. This frenetic yet affecting musical score (by Adrian Sutton) and bright multicolored moving lights (by Paule Constable) and video images (by Finn Ross) would be enhancing the dramatic situations experienced by Christopher and his parents throughout the duration of this play. This play was as much about technical precision as it was about the actors' performances. There were Chinese surtitles being flashed on both sides of the stage. 

The main lead star playing Christopher is Joshua Jenkins, the actor seen in all the publicity posters and photos, who had also led the touring cast in the UK before this. However, on the day I watched, the matinee show of March 11, 2018, the role of Christopher was played by the alternate actor Sam Newton, only in his professional theater debut with this play. I don't have any reference for comparison, so I thought Newton nailed the challenging role pretty well. The role was not only emotionally difficult, but also very physically demanding.

Christopher's patient teacher Siobhan was played by Julie Hale. At first, it felt awkward that Christopher's thoughts were being narrated by a female character, but later you get the drift that she was reading Christopher's journal in a play within the play. (In the novel was narrated in the first-person perspective as a book by Christopher within a book). His father Ed and mother Judy were played by David Michaels and Emma Beattie respectively. Both roles were so emotionally devastating to play, and both actors earn our admiration for their heartfelt and painful performances. 

The rest of the ensemble have to recreate the overwhelming world around our fragile hero Christopher -- his neighborhood, the station, the train, the subway. Here is where the direction (by Marianne Elliot) and the choreography (Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for the Frantic Assembly) shone so brilliantly, as accompanied in precise timing by the driving music and glittering lights. We in the audience definitely feel how someone with a special psyche like Christopher could be turned inside out and panicked by all the varied nonstop visual and aural onslaught of stimuli around him in these busy places. 

All in all, it was a 2 hours 40 minute-long play (with one 20 minute interval) well worth the expense and time of the overseas day trip it took for me to go watch it. It was well-deserving of critical acclaim and all the awards it had won for play, direction, lighting and set design. We were brought inside the brain of a teenage autistic-like math savant. The mathematical equations may just fly over our heads, but his confused mind and fractured heart definitely stirred my sympathy and emotions. 


This play was staged at the Lyric Theater of the Hong Kong Academy of the Performing Arts from March 8 to 18, 2018. Showtime is 7:30 pm, with 2:30 pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Ticket prices: Standard: $580 / $440 / $300 / $180; Local Full-Time Student with valid I.D. (limited quota): $290 / $220 / $150 / $90; Disabled with valid I.D. (limited quota): $290 / $220 / $150 / $90; Wheelchair: $150.

This touring production is going around Asia and Australia now. After Hong Kong, it goes to Singapore (March 29 to April 8 at the Esplanade Theater with tickets from $48, $68, $88, $108, $128, and $138). then China (starting May 9, 2018 in Shanghai, then going to Beijing, and finally Guangzhou up to June 3, 2018) then Australia (starting June 12, 2018 in Brisbane, then going to Canberra, Sydney, Adelaide and concluding in Perth by August 19, 2018). Click on this LINK for more ticket details. 


Personal Backstory: 

I booked the ticket online on the first day of its release November 1, 2017, knowing the popular demand for this show. They sent the ticket and receipt by mail, without any shipping charge that I knew of. I booked the airline tickets once upon receipt of the ticket by December 1, 2017. 

On March 11, 2018 itself, I left Manila past 7 am, reached Hong Kong past 9 am already. At the airport I bought a ticket for Bus A12. Alone a ticket costs HK$45, but if you buy the return trip together via Bus A11, you only pay HK$65. The HK Academy of Performing Arts is the 6th stop along the route of A12. 

The play ended at around 5 pm or so. There was enough time to cross Gloucester St. via footbridge and look for the A11 bus stop on the other side. The route back to the airport passes through the plaza where the Filipino domestic helpers spend their Sunday off en masse, so you can see how many they truly are there. The bus reached the airport Terminal 1 just in time to check in for the 9 pm flight back home.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Review of Rep's SILENT SKY: Simple, Scholarly and Stellar

March 4, 2018

Aside maybe for Marie Curie, a regular person would be hard-pressed to name any women pioneer of science (in any field) at all. The contributions of women in the history of any of the sciences had been very limited, because it was only during the 19th century that women were admitted into scientific courses of study and societies. Even then, they still struggled for opportunities for study and recognition for discoveries. 

For their second production for this season, Repertory Philippines chose to stage a 2013 play by American playwright Lauren Gunderson entitled "Silent Sky." This is about a woman who made an important discovery in the field of Astronomy in the year 1908, whose name most of us have never heard of before. 

Henrietta Leavitt was a summa cum laude graduate from women's college Radcliffe, in her words "Harvard with skirts." She was accepted to work in Harvard Observatory, but it turned out she would not be handling the telescope itself. With Annie Cannon and Williamina Fleming in the women's department (jokingly called "Pickering's Harem"), she was tasked to count, label and describe stars from photographic plates.

However, Henrietta began to notice a pattern in the pulsations of Cepheid stars, and eventually concluded that there is a relationship between the brightness of the star and the length of time they take to blink, when she then correlated to the distance of this star. While Leavitt's discovery was published in journals, she was not allowed to do her own independent studies. However, eventually, her vital discovery was acknowledged as the basis of more well-known work by later astronomers like Edwin Hubble.

Simple stage bathed in dramatic blue light and stars

Cathy Azanza-Dy totally owned this play with her earnest and passionate portrayal of Henrietta Leavitt. She radiated Leavitt's burning desire to learn more and discover the unknown. She also made us feel the sense of frustration of a scholarly woman at that time who was treated as second-class citizen in the sciences, as it was in society. However, with her obsessive curiosity and probing intellect, we celebrated her triumphant discovery. With Azanza-Dy's performance, we totally felt Henrietta's uncommon strength of character.

Sheila Francisco and Naths Everett played Henrietta's senior colleagues Annie and Williamina, respectively. They were accomplished women of science in their own right, but unlike Henrietta, they seemed to be satisfied with the status quo. While Annie can be a strict supervisor type, Williamina balanced it by being ever-smiling and friendly. They played some sort of comic relief in order to lighten the serious nature of the play at certain points. 

Caisa Borromeo also does well as Henrietta's homebound sister Margaret, who portrayed all the typical roles expected from women at that time -- a dedicated daughter, wife and mother, deeply religious as expressed in her music. Her character changed quite a bit from her first scenes at the country home and her final scenes in the city, but her transition was not too clearly explained in the script. 

Topper Fabregas played imaginary character Peter Shaw, the fidgety apprentice of the head astronomer. As the only male character of a feministic play, he had the misfortune of portraying all of what is wrong with men (as perceived by women) -- pride, selfishness, insecurity, weak of will, lack of faith, lack of loyalty, lack of backbone -- name it. Fabregas had the nerdy, bumbling part of the character down, but he looked too young to be romantically paired with the formidable Azanza-Dy. I suspect the impression of male immaturity may have been done on purpose in this casting decision. 

The Cast at the Curtain Call
Francisco, Borromeo, Azanza-Dy, Fabregas and Everett

A quiet and serious play like this would seem like a very risky choice business-wise for any theater company to stage, especially since the play, playwright and its subject matter are all unfamiliar to the Filipino audience, hence it would not be an easy task to sell. However, Rep's belief in the play's sense of inspiration prevailed. With the talented cast, set and costumes by Joey Gonz├ílez-Mendoza, dramatic lights by John Batalla, and subtle sounds by Jethro Joaquin, director Joy Virata definitely drove home the message of female empowerment with stirring conviction, without needless fireworks. 


"Silent Sky" will run from March 2 to 25 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Ayala Center in Makati City. For show schedules (Fridays and Saturdays 8 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 3:30 pm) and tickets (P1,200 and P1,500), visit TicketWorld.