Monday, October 01, 2007

Itchy puppets, greedy puppeteers

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10.01.2007

Three well-made musicals, two of them coming back for much-deserved reruns, offered good reasons for going to the theater recently

THERE WAS A time, before the onslaught of the TV-manufactured “Champions,” when singer Rachel Alejandro’s beautifully burnished alto dominated pop radio with hits like “Nakapagtataka” and “Paalam Na.”

These days, the dominant sound of the airwaves is much higher in both decibel and pitch--the aural fingerprint of a crop of younger singers who’ve been taught that belting, curlicue and melisma, no matter how undisciplined or superfluous to their talent, are the turbo trains to popular acclaim.

Singing as a blood sport can howl non-belters like Alejandro out of the fickle spotlight, as it has of late.

But there is one venue where Alejandro should feel most welcome any time: the stage. Her few forays into musical theater so far (“Alikabok,” “Larawan,” “Rent”) suggest that her gifts acquire greater luster when used in service to a musical character, as opposed to a conventional 32-bar pop ditty.

Her recent turn as Kate Monster and Lucy the Slut in Atlantis Productions’ “Avenue Q,” directed by Bobby Garcia and Chari Arespacochaga, supports this thought.

In this winsome staging of the 2004 Tony winner for Best Musical, which closed a weekend ago at the RCBC Theater but will be back in the same venue on December 14-23, Alejandro delivered a performance of remarkable control and versatility. Her pipes spun glittering sass one moment (in “Special”), precise heartbreak the next (in “There’s a Fine, Fine Line”).

Alejandro’s assured presence in this genial, tuneful, sharply mischievous musical--featuring puppets that cussed and boinked each other, for starters--was all of a piece with her co-stars’ joyously entertaining work.

Happy surprise
There’s Felix Rivera, showing himself off as a newly minted leading man with his good looks, limber frame and strong, expressive voice (already evident when he strutted as an alternate Chuck Cranston in Stages’ “Footloose” in 2005). If he keeps at it, Rivera should be in the big leagues by tomorrow.

Joel Trinidad juggled his multiple ventriloquist duties expertly, and was especially funny as Trekkie Monster. Aiza Seguerra, though you could quibble with her unsteady attempt at a black accent, was perfectly cast as Gary Coleman, if only for the resonant punch she brought to the line, “Try being a has-been at 15 years old!” And in small parts, Rycharde Everly and Teenee Chan gave deft support.

It would be an oversight not to devote a paragraph or two to Frenchie Dy, who was a happy surprise as Christmas Eve. The erstwhile “Star in a Million” champion aced her musical theater debut with much charm and confidence, plus the best voice in the ensemble next to Alejandro’s.

She represents hope--the bona fide product of gladiatorial vocal combat on TV transcending her birit beginnings to become an effective storyteller in song. Can she dance? How about “Hairspray” for her next time?

(“Avenue Q” returns Dec. 14-23 at the RCBC Theater. Call 8927078 or e-mail

Glossy ‘sarsuwela’
Puppets and puppeteers were also on ample display in “Pilipinas Circa 1907,” Tanghalang Pilipino’s glossy, colorful restaging of Nicanor Tiongson’s modern sarsuwela on the state of the nation a full century ago.

Unlike “Avenue Q’s” denizens, the puppets here weren’t of the cute, furry kind. Try grasping, brutal, sycophantic instead. Puppet and puppet-master took the form of local toadies and their American colonialist overlords who worked in tandem to rip the land of its resources, take over homegrown industries and harass anyone with pronounced nationalist sentiments.

Ripping a page off Severino Reyes’ landmark sarsuwela “Walang Sugat,” “Pilipinas Circa 1907,” briskly directed by Dennis Marasigan, offered no pretensions to an unbiased view of history.

It had a knotty, playful love story--make that two love stories--at its center, but Tiongson’s libretto thumbed the scales as a larger, full-throated screed against Western imperialism and its ballast, capitalist greed. It wasn’t for nothing that in this sarsuwela, the pivotal Filipino tobacco company lusted over by the Americans was named Germinal—after the title of Emile Zola’s novel on the oppressed working classes of the Industrial Revolution.

Zippy and agile
The revelation, then, of “Pilipinas Circa 1907,” staged without the aid of lapel microphones at the CCP’s Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, was how light, zippy and musically agile it felt despite its ponderous themes.

The music--by José Estella, Lutgardo Labad, Louie Pascasio, Lucien Letaba and Chino Toledo, with snatches from Nicanor Abelardo, Scott Joplin and Barry Fagan--was by a virtual committee that promised only a muddled mess. But under Chino Toledo’s musical ministrations, what came out was a robust score brimming with martial music, rich melodies and lofty arias.

Sung, it should be added, by some of the most attractive if largely unheralded voices a theater company had been able to gather lately.

Miguel Castro, Ana Feleo (thrilling in her aria, “Ang Maya”), Lani Ligot, Jing Reyna, Mia Bolanos and Nazer Salcedo paced the rest of the cast with the refinement and transparency of their singing. The large ensemble, garbed in costumes by Danilo Franco, sounded warm and vigorous, if not always tight-knit--a forgivable kink when weighed against the lucidity and energy of the production.

Inquisitive kids
In the musical “Children’s Letters to God,” God, whomever or however we conceive Him to be, is the grand puppet-master jerking the cosmic strings behind everything that happens around us. Or is he?

That ambiguity, both tantalizing and exasperating, is not what the story is about, but it is a subtext worth acknowledging. For while five inquisitive children send God a fusillade of letters with amusing yet thought-provoking questions (“Dear God, are you really invisible or is that just a trick?”) or pithy observations (“Dear God, I think the stapler is one of your greatest inventions”), the All-Knowing One remains silent, aloof, unresponsive.

In this Off-Broadway musical (music by David Evans, lyrics by Douglas J. Cohen) that Actor’s Actors Inc.’s Bart Guingona (assisted by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) staged for one weekend last month and will bring back for two more weekends this October, the children are left on their own to explore, discover, learn from and live out the answers to their questions.

No voice from the heavens, no apparitions, no burning bush. Which, in the end, may constitute God’s All-Purpose Answer to human confusion: I gave you everything you need, kiddo--free will, a mind and a heart. Use them, and good luck.

In “Children’s Letters to God,” the kids do. They discover their own capacity to overcome fear, reach out to others, accept new and strange realities (their parents’ divorce, for instance, or the death of a pet), ride out the bumps of their fragile young lives.

Care and poise
And as performed by a thoroughly captivating cast that, on the afternoon we watched, included Julia Abueva, Aria Clemente, Vince Ching, Miguel Lorenzo Sison and Nacho Tambunting (there were two other sets of young actors alternating in the roles), the silly-serious world-view offered by this show became an enormously touching, transporting experience.

A musical about “God” rinsed of the contemporary default positions of irony, attitude and quotation marks can carry its own self-destructive gene: How far before it capsizes into mush?

Impressively, “Children’s Letters to God” held on to great poise and the steadiest of care. Guingona and Lauchengco-Yulo’s sterling work with their young actors birthed a musical of pure, uncomplicated sentiment, all of it honestly earned. It must be seen to be believed.

(“Children’s Letters to God” returns Oct. 6 and Oct. 13 at the Insular Life Auditorium, Filinvest Corporate City, Alabang; then on Oct. 20-21 at the RCBC Theater, Makati City. Call 0920-9211231 or 8919999.)

PLUS: The kids harmonize in “Questions for the Rain.” And Julia Abueva and the pint-sized but amazing Nacho Tambunting square off in “Only Child.”

[“Children’s Letters to God” 2nd photo: Bong Rosales]


Felix Rivera said...

Sir, thank you so much for the generous review. We appreciate it a lot.

gibbs cadiz said...

FELIX, you're welcome, and thanks for dropping by. congratulations and keep it up! (also saw you in bluerep's spelling bee. great show as well.) :)

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