Monday, December 13, 2010

In Magsimula Ka! and 3 other musicals--an illustrative moment

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12.13.2010

The drama, if you will, is in the details

SCENE: DELIA, a young woman paralyzed from the waist down by a car accident, falls from her wheelchair. Her friends rush to her, comfort her, urge her not to lose faith. She will walk again, they chorus.

From the everyday dialogue of just moments ago, they suddenly lapse into “poetic” language: “Magsimula ka,” one says, “batiin ang kay gandang umaga.” “Ang buhay ay masaya, palalagpasin mo ba?” says another. “Sa paghihintay, baka masanay,” pipes in a third.

Then the first strains of the musical’s now-classic “carrier single” is heard, rising to a ringing Act 1 finale.

If one wanted a moment that distilled both what was good and what was bad in the longest-running musical of the 1980s, “Magsimula Ka!,” recently restaged at the Music Museum by Robert Seña under his and wife Isay Alvarez’s Spotlight Artists Centre, then its unintentionally funny first-act closer would make the grade.

After nearly 30 years, the musical (music and lyrics by Gines Tan, who also co-wrote the book with Inquirer Saturday Special editor Nestor Torre) sounded as good as ever--a high-voltage showcase of vocal exuberance a fresh cast of mostly new theater faces populated with aplomb.

The score (original arrangements by Ryan Cayabyab), a vibrant matrix of dominant ’70s and ’80s OPM sounds, had the bright-eyed, annunciatory quality of that golden age of local music-making (“Tunog-Pinoy ay uunlad, kikilalanin saan man mapadpad,” went one song).

But while the music still walloped with its pizzazz and lung power, the accompanying script was as moldy as the long-ago year (1985) in which the putative story took place. Unsurprisingly the young ensemble--playing fresh college graduates seeking their own place in the waning Marcos-era sun--could summon no authentic feel for the ’80s, despite the retro costumes and (lame) pop-culture references.

The text itself was no help in that regard, relying on cornball sentiment (see Act 1 scene above) and melodramatic contrivance (stern businessman father against son’s musical bent because--surprise!--in his youth he was also a gifted, but thwarted, music hopeful, and presumably still traumatized by it) to move the creaking story along.

Hokey script notwithstanding, the songs were glorious. A testament to Tan’s skill at mining the sound and feel of OPM was the mock song tilt near the end, where each of the nine “entries” not only sounded plausible enough as a contest piece, but also evoked the range and breadth of vintage Pinoy pop music, from Sampaguita to jukebox to novelty to showband harmonies, to the gleaming ballads of Basil Valdez.

Here, Seña’s expertise as one of the country’s most accomplished vocalists came to the fore, in the way he coaxed out particularly supple, assured singing from his newbie cast.

Not all of them, however. Ciara Sotto (an otherwise good dancer) had thin vocals and a wan presence onstage, a tentative quality shared by the big-voiced male lead, Poppert Bernadas. Good thing the musical’s anthem fell into the hands of Myke Salomon, who batted it out of the ballpark. And Jerald Napoles and Kakki Teodoro brought effortless timing to their comic routines.

One thing “Magsimula Ka!” got indisputably right: From its surfeit of stirring melodies (nearly every other song ended on symphonic big note), it reserved the best for last. The full-length “Magsimula Ka,” sung as a performance piece unencumbered by clumsy narrative, lifted the musical to a definitive high. Its back story? Sadly, to quote the male lead’s quaint description of his angsty dad--“Babaw ng logic.

Asia On Stage’s ‘DragonTales’
Scenery: A crescent, sloping-top wall revolving on stage every time the scene shifts from the play’s mythical world to its contemporary counterpart. In a modern home, the bare division physicalizes the emotional alienation between writer-son and wastrel dad. In the dragons’ lair, amid a riot of flamboyant costumes and stylized gestures by the actors, the stark background situates the mythology in an indeterminate realm--Chinese-seeming, but also as if two steps removed from it.

It would be unfair to reduce Asia On Stage’s recent “DragonTales,” the debut collaborative effort of a group of Singaporean and Filipino theater artists, to its scenery (by Gino Gonzales)--and this is no attempt at that. However, it wouldn’t be too far off, too, to use the workings of that revolving wall as a metaphor for the fate of the play itself.

Interesting at first, the set element would, with each successive, increasingly quick turnaround (at one point, it nearly knocked down one of the actors), induce tedium, lose its ability--as any effective scenery should--to immerse you in the universe of its making.

And so it was, alas, with “DragonTales,” directed by Singaporean Jeremiah Choy, with music and lyrics by Vince de Jesus. The newly minted musical, staged at the Peta Theater Center as prelude to a planned Asian tour, starred nine local actors and one Singaporean, in a tale about a put-upon playwright struggling to write a play about fanciful dragons in some faraway realm whose feuds and passions mirrored the simmering enmities in his home front.

Angry beasts and broken families--but the resulting drama had anything but. Much of the play was spent on talky exposition to explain the tangled mythology of the creatures—characters originally created by Michael Chow, head honcho of Asia On Stage. The “dragons” looked magnificent either clothed or not (Miguel Vasquez’s rippling bod seemed a character unto itself). But no genuine grandeur or mystery informed their proceedings, and the banal, dutiful script kept the mythical aspirations strictly earth-bound.

The sound mix was sumptuous, the aural palette plangent with Asian touches. One missed here, though, the hallmarks of De Jesus’ past works: the verbal lightness, the melodic wit, the sharp-edged humor, the clear storytelling. In their place was a strained solemnity and ponderousness that marked as well the polished but ultimately arid staging by Choy.

If at all, this appeared less the product of carelessness than of its opposite: an all-too-careful, self-conscious effort which also snuffed out any speck of spontaneity in the material.

Of the spirited, majestically brocaded and well-lit cast--unfortunately freighted with excessive movement (choreography by the Singaporean lead, Gani Karim) that, in time, rather than help define and deepen character, only looked goofy, repetitive--Kalila Aguilos stood out with a fierce, go-for-broke turn as the human-turned-dragon queen Wanabe. This sleek but flavorless musical could use some of that quirky fire.

Dulaang UP’s ‘Isang Panaginip na Fili’
Scene: A gaggle of nuns, chained to each other, writhe on the floor while flagellating themselves. Maria Clara emerges, a spectral sight in saintly robes, a haunting melody on her lips. Padre Salvi comes next, menacing. On the other side of the stage, Juli, now ravaged by Padre Camorra, is cast out of the convent.

The two women of Rizal’s novel join voices, harmonize on one sublime note. Then Salvi strips Maria Clara, drags her up the stairs and strangles her, as the nuns pant with their lamentations. Juli, high on a platform, takes her own life, a swirling cloud of dust devouring her plunge from the bell tower.

In that bravura sequence, alive with audacious revisionism and lush theatricality, could be glimpsed the arresting nature of Floy Quintos’ “Isang Panaginip na Fili,” restaged by Dulaang UP at Guerrero Theater in UP Diliman.

Two years ago, the musical had a messy debut, with composer Ceejay Javier’s relentlessly modernist music--its arrangements sounding rushed and flimsy--unable to find traction in a sprawling cast composed mostly of actors (competent ones, to be fair) rather than singers.

But that run also showed that, with the right pipes--Franco Laurel as Pepe, Onyl Torres as his ilustrado friend Tunying--the asymmetrical character of the music would come through.

In the recent staging, Torres stepped offstage to act as vocal coach, and his ministrations, along with Quintos’ decision to recast the roles based mainly on vocal chops, successfully conjured a tighter, more cohesive and compelling fever dream of a musical, emotionally engorged and ambiently sensuous.

Quintos’ lines could wax lyrical--Tunying, on the novel whose dark character Simoun he would assume in the course of the play: “Para sa akin, wala pa rin itong pinagkaiba sa mga romantikong nobela nina Dumas at Hugo. At hindi ‘yan pangungutya. Ngunit maski sina Dumas at Hugo ay hindi nakapagsulat kailanman ng sandakilang pananawagan, o nakapagbigay ng simbanal na alay.”

By keeping to the escalating human drama of Rizal’s narrative, this “Fili” sidestepped the preachiness, reveling instead in sexual tension, ambiguity--reality and reimagining in an intertextual dance. Strikingly, even as Javier’s music now sounded even more avant-garde in reworked arrangements, its power and pathos still located their purest interpretations in cultivated, classically placed voices--Laurel (alternating with a fine Red Concepcion) and Greg de Leon back as Pepe and Kabesang Tales, respectively; Nazer Salcedo, Dondi Ong, Nicole Aldiosa, a luminous-sounding Janine Santos.

OJ Mariano, meanwhile, who broke through earlier this year as Collins in 9 Works Theatrical’s “Rent,” lent his Tunying a gritty, youthful charge.

The high-flown vision occasionally foundered on the nitty-gritty. Guerrero Theater’s technicals remained feeble--at least for musicals, and Dulaang UP’s usual unwieldy mix of professional and student actors could only ensure the production would not achieve the kind of seamless, high-toned sheen “DragonTales,” say, had going for it.

But if that shabby accessibility also left you moved, weeping even, in the end, it was clear the musical was on to something right.

Rep’s “Little Women”
Scene/scenery: Cape Cod projected on the background, a giant lighthouse at sunset setting off the wheelchair in the foreground. On the beach, Beth, the dying March sister, comforts Jo, the headstrong one. “Some things are meant to be...,” she sings. “Let me go.”

She slowly extricates herself, loses herself in the wings. The lights dim, the orchestra eases into a whisper, the chair now in silhouette. Jo slowly wheels it out, a hunched figure in the landscape. Blackout.

For the utmost delicacy and soulfulness that governed the rest of Repertory Philippines’ “Little Women,” directed by Menchu Lauchengco Yulo, one need look no further than this illustrative moment, played with such heartbreaking truth by young actresses Cara Barredo (Beth) and Caisa Borromeo (in a sensational, star-making turn as Jo).

Lauchengco Yulo, in only her second directorial outing after Stages’ “West Side Story” two years ago, did something quite unexpected with “Little Women.” In her hands, the prim, melodically old-fashioned Broadway musical (music by Jason Howland, lyrics by Mindi Dickstein, and book by Allan Knee based on the enduring Louisa May Alcott novel) became much more than a conventional song-and-dance pageant.

What had been called in its New York run an “underwritten, undercomposed, understaged, and underpopulated epic” (Matthew Murray, Talkin’ Broadway) here surprised with a warm, winsome energy and a richly suggested inner life.

While the music-making remained skillful (eloquent playing by Gerard Salonga and Filharmonika), the director seemed to have very gently steered the musical into more nuanced, actorly territory. At best, Lauchengco-Yulo’s decades-long musical-theater training found ample reflection in the fulsome, meticulous performances she managed to extract from her nearly flawless cast.

The five women especially--Borromeo, Barredo, Lora Nicolas as the beautiful Meg, Kelly Lati as the flighty Amy, and Pinky Marquez as the girls’ mother Marmee (her Act 2 ballad “Days of Plenty” took one’s breath away)--were ideally cast.

Miguel Faustmann, Jeff Arcilla, Jack Salud and Joy Virata also did well by their roles. Only Jaime Barcelon had to struggle with his part’s vocal demands.

A show that ends Act 1 with a song called “Astonishing” and in Act 2 features another number in the same breathless mode--“The Most Amazing Thing”--must sound like a musical Pollyanna, or a production on uppers. Still, the word that came to mind with this “Little Women” was intimate.

Helping shape its restrained, resonant pitch was the masterfully stylized scenery by New York-based set designer Joey Mendoza, along with Tuxqs Rutaquio’s intricate period costumes and John Batalla’s lighting.

And then there was Borromeo. On her shoulders rested the fragile, feather-light spirit of this production. Too much brassy tomboy and she’d harden the show; too much playing cute and “Little Women” would tumble into treacle.

She delivered--astonishingly. Her dazzling Act 1 closer heralded nothing less than one of those moments musical-theater worshippers live for--the birth of a bright new young star in the local theatrical firmament.


Joaquin said...

Little Women is the best one this year. I can't stop thinking about Menchu's choices.

Anonymous said...

on a different note: nanalo daw si cory aquino ng nobel prize according to inquirer?

Anonymous said...

There is a genius in Yulo's casting that I think was critical in making this version of Little Women work. Aside from their chemistry and talent, these March children had a childlike innocence that was simply impossible to resist.

Anonymous said...

saw this article written by lea salonga: sana GALA ka na lang nanuod kung ayaw mo maistorbo. and sana sinabihan mo na KEEP QUIET.

Anonymous said...

a comment of lea salonga in her column....

There was actually a group of uniformed colegialas at a previous performance that let out a blood-curdling “Nooo!” when Laurie and Amy announced their engagement. Halata bang hindi ninyo binasa yung libro, o pinanood yung pelikula man lang? -> kinda condescending.

gibbs cadiz said...

huh? she did say she tried several times to shush up the people behind her. and what sort of logic can be behind the suggestion that, if she wanted a respectul crowd, sa gala na lang siya manood? meaning, in all other performances except the gala, the audience is now free to disrespect the hardworking performers on stage and the rest of the audience who paid to watch a show free of distraction and juvenile behavior? you ARE funny.

Anonymous said...

i also watched that show. hello maingay din kaya sila nung kasama niya

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