Monday, November 15, 2010

When movies become stage musicals--for better or for worse

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 10.17.2010

“The Wedding Singer,” “Legally Blonde,” “Xanadu,” “A Little Night Music”--what works, and what doesn’t, in these productions?

PEDRO ALMODÓVAR’S touchstone film “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown” has just opened on Broadway as a full-throttle, multi-diva musical, and already the critical drubbing it has received (“a muddled jumble of vignettes,” sniffed Thom Geier of Entertainment Weekly) serves as a bracing reminder that minting stage musicals out of popular movies is largely a touch-and-go affair.

A few might hit the alchemical jackpot (“The Lion King,” “Hairspray”); many more would be specimens in clumsy transposition, devoid of the charm or spirit of their original screen incarnations (“Footloose,” “The Little Mermaid,” “Saturday Night Fever”).

“To turn so fully realized a work of cinematic art into an equally successful musical demands that it be subjected to a complete and thoroughgoing imaginative transformation,” Terry Teachout of Wall Street Journal wrote, apropos Almodovar’s burlesque-turned-Broadway musical. A solid-sounding formula--but what if the source movie isn’t even a “fully realized work of cinematic art?”

“Legally Blonde,” for instance? Or “The Wedding Singer?” Or, farther back, an ’80s turkey that has become a cult favorite, “Xanadu?”

If you hadn’t noticed yet, those titles occupied the marquees of Manila’s theatrical venues in recent months. Only yesterday, 9 Works Theatrical’s production of “The Wedding Singer,” based on the ’90s Adam Sandler movie, had its closing show after a three-week run at Meralco Theater.

In June, the musical version of the Reese Witherspoon comedy smash “Legally Blonde,” mounted by Atlantis Productions, transformed the same venue into a shrine to all things pink and cutesy. Atlantis followed that up three months later with another candy-colored musical, “Xanadu,” a tongue-in-cheek riff on the Olivia Newton-John flick, this time at RCBC Theater.

Rounding off this slate of screen-to-stage adaptations was Atlantis’ most recent production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” which, while having established a fulsome life for itself as a now-classic Broadway musical, is nevertheless rooted in film--a formidable one at that: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Cannes-winning romantic comedy “Smiles of a Summer Night.”

Four musicals made from movies in a span of half a year--what an opportunity to tease out the implications of Teachout’s dictum, especially its insistence on a “complete and thoroughgoing imaginative transformation” if a movie-based musical were to escape its celluloid origins and find an orbit of its own.

‘Legally Blonde’
That absence of any impulse for a bold, consummate reinvention, for instance, should explain the fizz-less, graceless quality that marked the “Legally Blonde” and “Wedding Singer” musicals. There’s a paradox: While slavishly replicating their source movies down to the lamest scenes and dialogue, the stage facsimiles ended up curiously thinner, sillier, more anodyne.

The movies themselves were often shrewd and jagged-edged, unafraid to be idiosyncratic. Both featured quirky, sui generis lead stars in slashingly drawn characters--Witherspoon’s Elle Woods with her “soupçon of freakishness,” as The New York Times’ Ben Brantley put it, and Sandler’s Robby Hart--one more variation on his sour, passive-aggressive man-boy persona, in “The Wedding Singer.”

Alas, whatever eccentricities these characters had, the very source of their movies’ skewed, misfit appeal, were all gone, sandpapered away to a conventional all-purpose slickness, by the time songs, choreography and blocking were added to the mix to simulate a full-scale stage musical.

Atlantis’ “Legally Blonde,” directed by Chari Arespacochaga (serviceable music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, uninspired book by Heather Hach), had a find in TV star Nikki Gil, who sang, danced and cooed with abandon as the dumb-blonde-turned-Harvard-girl. Gil’s was a more-than-capable turn, but it wasn’t Elle Woods. Despite the attempts at girlishness, her approach appeared too smart and self-aware throughout.

Still, Gil’s radiant joy at her musical-theater debut was infectious, which went a long way toward alleviating the show’s many weak spots, beginning with a band that seemed unable to find its bearings, and a cast that was mostly a blur, save for Jett Pangan and Jinky Llamanzares who stood out from the gooey blob with their commanding voices.

‘The Wedding Singer’
A strong central performance also anchored 9 Works’ “The Wedding Singer”--Gian Magdangal’s. Here, too, the tang and tartness of the movie has given way to a bland, plodding rom-com spirit, courtesy of a distended book (by Tim Herlihy and Chad Beguelin) and a defiantly unmemorable score by Beguelin (words) and Matthew Sklar (music).

Tellingly, the only songs with any lingering sense of the oddball in them were the two retained from the movie--“Somebody Kill Me” and “Grow Old With You,” both composed by Sandler and Herlihy.

But if the material itself was flat, thankfully the cast assembled by director Robbie Guevara wasn’t. Magdangal, freed of the showy angst that burdened his Roger in 9 Works’ production of “Rent” earlier this year, was in his element, belting out his high notes with newfound ease. The Sandler neuroses was gone, but in its place was a becoming leading-man aplomb.

Iya Villania looked fetching and sang adequately, but the better Julia Sullivan was alternate Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, who brought a true musical-theater touch, delicate and nuanced, to her singing and acting.

From Guevara’s succinct staging, to the crackerjack choreography (by Francis Matheu--the near-surreal “It’s All About the Green” number was a high point), the sleek scenery (by Mio Infante), and the robust sound of the band (under Rodel Colmenar), this “Wedding Singer” could bid fair as perhaps the spiffiest, most handsomely mounted musical production of the year so far.

“Xanadu,” meanwhile, chucked the literal-mindedness of “Legally Blonde” and “The Wedding Singer.” The original movie was much derided in its time, but Douglas Carter Beane’s witty book would transform it into a first-rate musical, with Jeff Lynne and John Farrar reworking their catalogue of Electric Light Orchestra pop hits into a sparklingly demented score.

Here, at last, was a case study in “complete and thoroughgoing imaginative transformation,” as Beane and company apparently looked at the movie, decided it was crap beyond saving, and proceeded to make fun of it—with affection, as it were, which made all the difference.

Lovingly sardonic, unabashedly off-kilter, “Xanadu, The Musical” untethered itself completely from its unlikely cinematic moorings to find a hip, winking groove of its own.

Unhappily, in the show directed by Bobby Garcia for his Atlantis Productions, “Xanadu’s” feathery vibe found a mismatch in lead star Rachel Alejandro as Clio, the Greek muse who disguises herself on earth (Venice Beach, California, ca. 1980) as an Australian roller-skater girl.

Alejandro’s earthy, rather prim persona lacked the helium ballast required for the part’s sublime ridiculousness to fly. More distressingly, on the two separate nights we watched the show, she seemed to be hitting flats once too often with her singing.

A duty her co-star Felix Rivera had no difficulty executing, however, with his vocal range splendidly showcased by the score. Chari Arespacochaga and Yael Pineda’s scene-stealing turns as Clio’s evil older sisters also paced a solid supporting ensemble.

For the embodiment of “Xanadu’s” unexpected whimsy, though, one had to look at veteran actor Noel Trinidad, whose beguiling performance as a hardhearted real-estate mogul mellowing into human form unveiled a presence, command and charisma undiminished by his many years off the stage. (Leo Rialp, alternating with Trinidad in the role, brought twinkling gravitas to the role.)

‘A Little Night Music’
Barely a month after Alejandro et al. had hung up their “Xanadu” roller-skates and leg warmers, Garcia was back at RCBC Theater, unveiling his most ambitious production yet, Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music”--the production taking a leaf from the retooled chamber orchestra set-up employed by director Trevor Nunn for his current Broadway revival.

Ambitious, because, musically and thematically, “A Little Night Music” represented a leap away from the youthful, smart-alecky musicals Garcia has become identified with (“Avenue Q,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Hairspray”).

Sondheim’s work, its 1973 Harold Prince production said to be one of the classiest musicals ever staged on Broadway, perhaps matches most fully a key plank of Teachout’s theory on successful movie-to-musical transfers. “Night Music’s” original playbill said it was “suggested” by Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night”--an accurate word, because, while the resulting musical still recalls the Bergman film, in ways subtle and strategic it has also become an altogether different creation.

Brilliant framework
Already that rare stuffed animal, a “fully realized work of cinematic art,” “Smiles” gave Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler a brilliantly designed framework of characters and plot incidents to work with, but they didn’t stop there.

Wheeler made explicit--in some moments even a touch bawdy--the bedroom farce, while Sondheim sharpened and simplified, with ravishing music and elegant patter, the various romantic entanglements. Both aspects present, incidentally, but rendered with quintessential Nordic cool in Bergman’s film.

Desiree and Fredrik, for instance, didn’t end up in bed onscreen after their backstage reunion. In the musical, they did. Fredrik did fall into a puddle, necessitating his changing into Count Malcolm’s bathrobe; on stage, it was a pretext to ratchet up the men’s confrontation. Count Malcolm himself, unlike his stage counterpart, wasn’t a dim-witted buffoon--was more concerned, in fact, about scandal and propriety than his carefree actress-lover.

The games of seduction and betrayal at the country house weren’t Countess Charlotte and Anne’s doing, as in the musical; it was Charlotte and Desiree’s--two mature women taking charge of their shared destinies. (“Are you prepared to be frank?” asks Charlotte of her husband’s mistress. “Why not?” replies Desiree. “We’re enemies after all. Enemies can sometimes have mutual interests.”)

Most crucially, that bit of dialogue about the summer night smiling three times was uttered by the servant Frid in the film, indicating Bergman’s empathy with the lower classes and their crusty, uninhibited, live-in-the-moment instincts. Sondheim’s musical wrenched that away from him and gave it to Mme. Armfeldt, thus making the observation a (simpler) function of gray wisdom.

In “Smiles,” the boudoir feints and maneuvers were brisk, military-like; in “Night Music,” they had become warmer, broader, if more obvious.

These were not trivial changes. Cumulatively, they altered the tone, temper and intent of “A Little Night Music” (the title was originally intended for Sondheim’s TV musical, which became “Evening Primrose”), nudging it more into the ambit of the American musical form--highly influenced by European operetta, yes, but in its zippy, zany, emotionally voluble character, now also consciously contemporary Broadway.

Glamorous airs
At its best, Garcia’s sophisticated production of “A Little Night Music” lived up to Sondheim’s original instruction to his orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, on how to approach the material: “This score should sound like perfume,” he said. Indeed, rippling outward from Dawn Zulueta’s entrancing revelation of a performance as Desiree, this “Night Music” had no difficulty commanding the senses with its exquisite, glamorous airs.

That, sadly, even without much help from the lights and scenery. Infante, who also did the color-block panels of “The Wedding Singer,” conjured a static stained-glass birch-forest backdrop that, coupled with Dong Calingacion’s pallid lighting, failed to evoke the pastoral, pagan realm so critical to the lovers’ eventual shedding of their inhibitions.

“Don’t marry Scandinavians,” Mme. Armfeldt tells her granddaughter, “they’re all crazy”--the eternal northern light, the exasperatingly drawn-out suspension between night and day, seeing to that. Only, this “Night Music” wasn’t lighted that way.

Otherwise, the drama and music-making were topnotch. Ceejay Javier’s orchestration sounded luscious, ably supporting the superlative singing by the cast. Nonie Buencamino’s Fredrik Egerman was a beacon of clarity and exactitude, an actorly intelligence ever layering his vocals. Cris Villonco as Anne; Jenny Jamora as Countess Charlotte; Alys Serdenia as the saucy servant girl Petra (her 11 o’clock number “The Miller’s Son” was a show-stopper); Jay Glorioso as Mme. Armfeldt; Jake Macapagal as Count Malcolm; the lieder chorus--nearly everyone was at or close to their career best.

Verve and imagination
Rivera, meanwhile, who was superb in “Xanadu,” proved to be surprisingly stymied by “Night Music.” He sang flawlessly as usual (a thrilling solo in “Later”), but fathomed no genuine, profound despair as the tormented son Henrik. And he struck no sparks with Villonco, robbing their flight near the end--the first characters, in effect, to acknowledge the truth and act like grown-ups--the sense of sheer liberation that was the movie’s greatest moment of uplift, and that would free, at last, the rest of the bourgeois menagerie from their petty hypocrisies.

The great work has been done, though. With verve and thoroughgoing imagination, Sondheim had reoriented “Smiles of a Summer Night,” and the resulting musical is big enough to withstand the small, occasional infelicities.

In the general juvenilia that has often marked Manila’s musical landscape, the appearance of “A Little Night Music” allows us, with much pleasure, to channel the critic Clive Barnes’ astonished reaction to it in 1973: “Good God, finally an adult musical!”

“Xanadu” returns Nov. 19-Dec. 5 at RCBC Theater. Call Atlantis Productions at 892-7078/840-1187.


Anonymous said...

this “Wedding Singer” could bid fair as perhaps the spiffiest, most handsomely mounted musical production of the year so far. -- Sorry, I beg to disagree. The show I watched was boring, not funny at all--as if the actors did not do any text work. Yes, Gian sang beautifully but he could barely carry the show. Vocally, the singers were not strong save from Sheila and Gian--the humor was not present at all. Sadly, I was very disappointed about the show, especially since it was one of my favorite movies in the 90's.

gibbs cadiz said...

that is what i said, in so many words--the musical itself is boring, thin, unfunny, so unlike the movie. do check the paragraph again--the 'most handsomely mounted' phrase had a list before it referring to the show's production values, not its text. :)

Faith Salazar said...

Oooh, so I must see Xanadu on its second run! Also, Gibbs, my God, "anodyne"? LOL I had to get a dictionary!

Crystal said...

i passed on the wedding singer because but now i'm beginning to regret it, since you say it had good production values. i saw xanadu but i can't comment properly since i tried out those stage seats. i'm never doing that again. hahaha

gibbs cadiz said...

CRYSTAL, yep, i can imagine not being able to concentrate while up there and worrying the actors might toy with you next, haha. hope you caught a little night music, though. :) thanks for the comment.

gibbs cadiz said...

FAITH! go! and go for 'anodyne' in the dickt--i mean dictionary. wahaha! :)

Anonymous said...

Production value in what sense exactly? Even the stage for me was not utilized well and the actors got eaten up by the space. The use of scrim did not help at all esp in the most romantic song--If I Told You.

Also, I do not think it is the text that is problematic. Because I remember listening to the OBC and watching a workshop performance (also directed by Mr. Guevara) a few years ago, and enjoying the amateurs's performance a lot more. That production was funny, this wasn't and I think it is because the humor was not discussed amongst themselves and the actors lacked the comedic timing that this show requires.

gibbs cadiz said...

i can't comment on the workshop show that you watched, i'm only operating from the two separate performances of this show that i watched, my impressions of which, from material to staging, are all in the review. if your assumption is that the cast didn't have sufficient text work among themselves, what exactly can i say to that? in the end, this might all come down to what you consider funny, engaging, compelling, and what i don't--and vice versa. :) still, thanks for your observations. :)

Anonymous said...

You're welcome! :)

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