Monday, November 19, 2007

Tales as old as time, now retold in song

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 11.19.2007

If there's one thing half a lifetime of theatergoing can teach you, it is that the urge to either jump up in ovation or walk out in disgust at the play you’re watching comes rather infrequently.

Far fewer productions are drop-dead triumphs or spectacular failures. Most, in fact, settle into that fuzzy groove somewhere between brilliant and crappy, great and wretched, good and bad—what one might call, in gay parlance, “Keri na.”

Because it doesn’t happen often, encountering a superior piece of theater thus becomes all the more memorable.

This year, a handful of shows managed to leap beyond the footlights to galvanize us to our feet: the short-lived “Sa Ngalan ng Anak” of UP Dulaang Laboratoryo (directed by Amiel Leonardia, based on Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons”); Nonon Padilla’s “Belong Puti” for Peta, Layeta Bucoy’s one-act “Ellas Inocentes” in the Virgin Labfest under Tuxqs Rutaquio’s direction; Chris Millado’s restaging of Mario O’Hara’s “Insiang” for Tanghalang Pilipino; Bobby Garcia’s “Avenue Q” for Atlantis Productions.

One more entry will now be added to that list: New Voice Company’s production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Into The Woods,” which opened a weekend ago at the Music Museum with tremendous verve, expressiveness and artistry.

Dark and complex
Sondheim and James Lapine’s masterwork—a dark and complex interweaving of several fairy tales set to often dissonant, angular music (though by Sondheim standards it’s one of his more tuneful scores)—has enjoyed a long life in the musical repertory ever since its Broadway debut in 1987.

Sondheim, who by this time had assembled a virtual gallery of offbeat characters for his musicals (the serial-killing barber Sweeney Todd, the commitment-phobic Bobby of “Company,” the aging showgirls of “Follies,” the xenophobic shoguns of ancient Japan in “Pacific Overtures”), trained his sights on another group ripe for re-imagining.

He took the Grimms’ most beloved characters—among them Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (of the Beanstalk mischief) and Little Red Riding Hood—and let them loose as denizens of an enchanted forest, the unhindered atmosphere of which would uncork their fears, passions and prejudices as they crisscrossed each other’s lives. And that’s just Act I.

Act II, about their tangled “ever after” lives, is even more tricky.

All that starry dust-up is presented in this “Into the Woods” with becoming freshness and clarity. There is pleasure to be had in realizing how its director, Rito Asilo, and his gifted ensemble have labored to remain faithful to the material while going to great lengths to put their own idiosyncratic stamp to it.

Contemporary bent
In its original form, the musical upended its storybook period setting with a winking dose of urban American irony. Witness Sondheim’s impish lyrics (e.g., “Let the moment go/Don’t forget it for a moment, though/Just remembering you’ve had an AND/When you’re back to OR/Makes the OR mean more than it did before,” from “Moments in the Woods”).

This version retains that knowing, bemused tone, but makes it somehow softer, gentler, more heartfelt. That approach robs some lines of their laugh tracks, but it’s a good tradeoff for the greater sense of empathy that the musical generates.

The Narrator, typically an Old Man, is now played by a smart, stylishly dressed young woman (Missy Maramara), underlining the contemporary bent of this version. The smaller staging, too, scales down the visual sprawl, giving this “Into the Woods” a fair semblance of chamber intimacy.

In Gino Gonzales’ giant playhouse of a set, the fairy-tale characters have become real people, hemmed in by recognizable regrets, restrictions and dead-end expectations.

In particular, the central roles of the child-desiring Baker and Baker’s Wife, superbly played by Michael Williams and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, evince a deep humanity, much helped along by the two actors’ seamless chemistry and gleaming voices.

Williams is notably moving in “No More,” where he squares off dramatically with his estranged father (Tommy Abuel, wearing his gravitas light and easy).

A couple of young actors shine just as brightly as these veterans. Joaqui Valdes and Julia Abueva, both newcomers to Sondheim, are standouts as Jack and Red Riding Hood, respectively.

Jack’s coming-of-age song “Giants in the Sky” receives an engagingly bittersweet reading from Valdes. Abueva, meanwhile, all crisp precociousness and self-assurance, convinces you her Red Riding Hood can, indeed, survive ravishment by the Wolf (Jamie Wilson, also Cinderella’s Prince).

Ah, Wilson: he’s one of a couple of casting choices you could cavil about. Wilson is a first-rate actor, something he displays to flamboyant, lascivious effect as the Wolf.

However, he’s not been blessed with the best pipes around. Which means that “Agony,” the made-for-laughs duet sung by Cinderella’s Prince and Rapunzel’s Prince (John Mulhall) is an exercise in bated breath for the audience.

Will Wilson croak? He doesn’t; he merely holds his top notes unsteadily. Mulhall carries the moment with his polished sound. But even in this, Wilson flashes more presence and personality.

Cast against type
As The Witch, Lynn Sherman’s textured, smoky voice works overtime with songs that promiscuously roam the scales, from her rap-like number in the prologue to the harrowing ballad “Stay with Me” and the soulful “Lament” in Act II.

A touch of laboriousness informs these numbers, but Sherman, cast against the usual type for this role (the regal Lauchengco-Yulo played the part in the 1992 Repertory Philippines production, and Bernadette Peters and Vanessa Williams did it on Broadway), by and large delivers.

Complementing her contralto are two sparkling sopranos, Cathy Azanza as a winning Cinderella and Angela Padilla as Rapunzel. Juno Henares is a scenery-chewing blast as Cinderella’s stepmother.

Unfortunately, Madeleine Nicolas—an accomplished actress who made her mark in Filipino-language plays and zarzuelas—still seems on tentative footing as Jack’s mother, though her comic putdowns often fly.

‘Overgrown’ book
About the only complaint one could have of this production is that its sublime payoff comes after a nearly three-hour running time.

“As overgrown as the forest” was how the former New York Times drama critic Frank Rich described the musical’s book (its spoken lines). True—though when one arrives at “Into the Woods’” most magical juncture, the argument becomes moot.

The moment in question is “No One Is Alone,” when the Baker, Jack, Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, all now bereft of loved ones, begin the process of reaching out to each other and contemplating lives as newfound friends (“Mother cannot guide you/Now you’re on your own/Only me beside you/Still you’re not alone...”)

Williams, Valdes, Abueva and Azanza, their voices blending in impeccable harmony, create a scene of magnificent aural and emotional splendor—one of those spine-shivering moments in theater when you tell yourself, “I’m damn lucky to be here.”

For a show of sustained excellence capped by that profound moment, polite “Keri na” applause won’t do. Only a full-scale ovation will.

“Into The Woods” runs until Dec. 8 at Music Museum. Call NVC at 8896695, 896549, 8990630, 8919999 or visit


Anonymous said...

I was able to catch Into the Woods on its first weekend run (saturday) and as much as I loved every bit of it (especially Menchu), I found Lynn Sherman's voice very distracting.

I am often left wondering why New Voice continually insists on casting actors that don't have the pipes for the role (like in Aspects of Love, the role of the Artist); and does so again with Mads this time around.

Choosing the cast for each of the main characters was an inspired decision. There is no doubt that there can be no other to fill the shoes of the baker's wife than the luminous Menchu. It's such a dream to see Menchu in a role where her voice sits really well with the highs and lows of the role. Cathy Azansa was also to be applauded. Her comedic timing and beautiful soprano was put to good use in this role. The roles of Jack and Little Red was cast brilliantly.

I do, however, have problems with some of the casting choices. The airy faux-soprano of rapunzel just doesn't cut it for me. The roles of the Prince Charmings were poorly chosen IMHO. True that Jamie Wilson has brilliantly shown his fangs as the wolf but for the prince, i'm not too convinced.

I'm sorry for putting my lengthy mini-review in here, since my blog is tech related; but I am a big fan of musical theater and I'd like to thank you for consistently covering even those shows that I normally wouldn't hear about.

I'm off to watch into the woods again for the second time this weekend, and I do agree that this year had been a great great year for local theater.

I'm still excited to watch dogeaters and after aida. great year for philippine theater

Gregg D'Bully said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
gibbs cadiz said...

ANONYMOUS, hi, first of all, do give us your name. i appreciate very much your comments here. we may disagree on certain things, but that's all right by me. i welcome that, actually. :) your mini-discussion of the play is valuable, incisive and interesting. it'd be much more interesting if we know the name of the person behind the comment, don't you think so? ín any case, you're very much welcome to post comments here any time. i'm just glad that even if you're in the technology field, you have time to watch and appreciate plays and musicals. more power to you! :)

Anonymous said...

You should THEN wonder why Vanessa Williams was cast as the Witch in the 2002 Broadway revival of ITW... or Dame Judi Dench in Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" singing "Send in the Clowns"... Why did Broadway and the Westend insist on casting these two??!

Surely, if you have seen the aforementioned, you would have noticed that Mads Nicolas has clearly a more acceptable singing voice (by leaps and bounds) than Dame Judi... I love Dench but if her life depended on her singing voice, she would have died a brutal and merciless death... her singing voice is deep and low, raspy and far from being lyrical at all; in fact, she does NOT sing! She RECITES! I wonder why the WESTEND production insisted on casting Dench. Hmm...

and surely, Lyn's contralto was way better than Vanessa Williams' (who was "grunting" in several scenes, i.e. "Last Midnight")...

The "acting chops" is probably a valid reason behind such casting preferences (thus the "character singing") . This casting choice gives the whole assemblage of characters more "character", more spice! It would have been something out worldly if everyone in the cast sounded exactly like Menchu! LOL

Why New Voice insists is probably because they obviously CAN, making them the maverick theatre company that we are privileged to patronize (otherwise, if these insistences annoy, i am sure that patronage is not being insisted upon)!
Why did NVC insist on casting Jamie Wilson as the charming prince when he obviously doesn't have the physical bearing of a charming gym-fit prince??? Nor does he have the singing voice! Probably because he is Monique's brother? But then again, probably because he is a DARN GOOD ACTOR - "first rate", as Gibbs would mention, and he made me laugh so many times during the whole musical, I would miss those sumptuous moments if they cast a far less intuitive actor!

And yeah, in the real world, there ARE blue-bloods not quite as comely as Prince Andrew or Prince William, if you haven't noticed. Shall I enumerate: Prince Charles; HRH Queen Elizabeth herself would NEVER qualify the physical criteria of a "lovely fairy tale princess". Neither would Princess Margaret!

Why does New Voice insist? Why did they insist on staging a very difficult play before- "Stones in His Pockets" or Bryony Lavery’s “Frozen” – clearly a non-commercial material, over say, hmmm "Proof"? Because they CAN! And I am glad they keep on insisting! It is their artistic prerogative!

If people are put off by such INSISTENCES - TOUGH! Life isn't fair and we dont always get the things we want, the way we expect them to be. Princes don’t always look or sing like James Marsden.


Anonymous said...

gibbs hi. i'm rich, the one who made the first comment.

very interesting points obet. while i do agree that choices like that give color and character to the production, i guess i am still stuck in the notion of a musical being properly sung. and overall it was a very enjoyable production, there was some aspects of it that i wished was better.

and i do own the vanessa williams into the woods cd, and i can't bear to listlen to it. haha i'd rather watch the bernadette peters dvd :)

rich, peace!

Anonymous said...

i have to agree. williams is just horrible as the crone. but, at the finale, transformed into her miss america glory and singing "children will listen", she is exquisite.


Anonymous said...

hi gibbs

your support for philippine theater is really commendable. Now on the sondheim play...Into the Woods for me is not really one of the greatest of sondheim, but definitely one of the more accessible. The thing is, just like other sondheim materials, it shows his great skill and talent for wordplay and its combination with the melodies. (e.g. high in a tower she sits....ten feet below --> and the keys and the melodies actually supporting the text!). am not really that convinced with this prod of NEw Voice. Some actors took liberty on the lyrics and even the tune. blocking is poor as well. and the narrator... picturing a dark dark picture is so so much! the material itself is dark, by not having an engaging narrator, the punch on the material and its dark content is alas, lost. the production basically showed what bad direction , lack of understanding on the text, do to a good material.

Anonymous said...

Hi po, Mr. Gibbs, I’ll ramble again as I haven’t gotten around to opening my own blogsite yet…hihihi…

New Voice’s ITW is the ONLY current production that made me wanna go watch 2 more plays/musicals the following weekends!!!! So, in principle, those 2 productions actually owed something to ITW because it made me pay and spend more nights at the theatre. ITW was simply, to my mind, the most fun night at the theater in a long long time – that I wanted to duplicate the immense enjoyment I’ve had watching ITW. I have learned to love Sondheim more. What is particularly interesting here is the way New Voice made it a refreshingly contemporary show. I am been very familiar with the Broadway version , and I have seen the youtube Vanessa Williams’ number (thanks to anonymous’ link), THIS Manila version is NOT the musical I am familiar with.

This version made me understand it more, the salient undertones of moral ambivalence, struggling for what we want - at all cost. It was enjoyable, it was CLEAR and heart-breaking, it felt oh-so real - the characters came to life, the music was well performed, and despite being a huge production in scope - Sondheims always are, this had the intimacy of a small play. It really made me think – who was the moral center of the play? Who was the only character that made the right thing without compromising his morality? The baker was probably the closest; and among the lesser characters, Jack’s mother. I am so thankful to NVC and to its brilliant director Rito Asilo for creating a new musical, that made me appreciate ITW even more now.

Dati, number 3 lang ang ITW among my top 5 Sondheims. Now its
closing in on number 1, although I doubt if “Sunday in the Park…” would ever be dislodged.

I love that part where all the characters were walking sideways, towards right side of the stage, then suddenly each one take turns – face the audience - as they rambled on about has happened during the whole Act 1! (Before "Ever After"!) THAT was FUN!!!! I loved the staging of “No More”. The way Cinderella and Red Riding Hood were at the right stage, while Jack and the Baker were at the left stage, up at the panel (isn’t it funny to have a nameless major character ?). I AM SO GLAD that they DID NOT EXACTLY COPY the blocking, choreo, of the original. It’s funny kasi how we sometimes watch a musical that triumphanltly copies the Broadway or Westend version down to the very last minor piece of costume, then call it “EXCELLENT”. I would say, you mean “excellent replica?” Kaya nga sometimes, I scoff at writers or reviewers who hardly mention the playwright’s name as well as the director’s name because a “show”, no matter how good the cast is- no matter how brilliant the singers are – will NOT write or direct itself!

I also LOVE the “pointing fingers” scene. I never enjoyed Broadway’s “blaming scene” coz it was confined to a limited area of the stage making the jibes rather a little confusing. In the Manila version, this scene was spread across the sprawl of that teeny space of the Music Museum, making use of the whole stage from Stage left to stage right! By doing such, a clearer demarcation was sufficiently established! That was brilliantly “blocked”!

I read the program notes and learned that the 3 month daily rehearsals had intimate discussions per characters; that on their 1st day of rehearsals alone, they were given questions about their characters, and had to be asked about what they have done on the background work on each of the characters… isn’t this part of “text work”? It’s like going to school!!!! FUN! I was also told that at some point, they had improvs. Scenarios run like these: How Cinderella met the Witch! How Jack met Little Riding Hood for the 1st time! How the Baker and the mysterious man MET for the very 1st time! How Rapunzel was abducted from the Baker’s family! If this is mediocre method to underline text work and “poor understanding” of characters, I don’t know what would suffice! I WOULD HAVE PAID GOOD MONEY to have been an audience to their rehearsal and improvs! I NEVER thought that such rehearsals go that far. Exciting!

I am finally gonna watch ITW again this Saturday, MY treat to myself, and my personal homage to this spectacular musical that I should HAVE watched again a week ago (instead of watching 2 other different plays, which disappointed me). I am gonna shake the hands of Joaqui -blush! blush!) And I am gonna get that autograph from my now-favorite director.

Terrific Sondheim, Terrific cast, heavenly music! Terrific director!

My money has never been so well spent! And my mom’ beaming of my excellent taste in theater (after she watched it the other week – after I recommended it to her and my brothers). ;->


Gatling Gun Issa

Anonymous said...

I wish I can catch ITW again, but I have a pre-scheduled trip to attend to. :-< ITW was a very pleasant pre-Christmas treat! Truly one of the best mounted musicals of our time! Period!

To Rich, Vanessa Williams was a “sight to behold” but you were right, it was “unbearable” to listen to her. LOL. She made the audience “work doubly hard” on point of suspension of disbelief.

Gibbs, any feedback on “After Aida”? Also, what’s next with NVC? Can you please forward my suggestion of another musical (since you seem well acquainted with the NVC bigwigs Ms. Wilson and Mr. Asilo)? Why not another Sondheim? Sunday in the Park? Everone seems to be namedropping this musical these days. Or if it’s a play, I was thinking of that new Sigourney Weaver play off Broadway (which I missed by just 2 days!!!) – the one about an institutionalized woman who suddenly gets an unwelcome visitor when she becomes heiress to a dead uncle’s fortunes. Sounds very intense to me, just exactly what NVC is used to serving on our plates! And yes, what’s next with NVC? Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Let me just say that if “Into The Wood”’s director was a bad one, then I would willingly pay - and even beg just to watch- all of his “badly-directed” plays in the future, and I can’t wait!!! LOL

utak-talangka nga naman is working overtime...LOL


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