Saturday, December 21, 2013

BRAVO! BEST OF THEATER 2013: The resurrection of the original Filipino musical

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 12.21.2013

When was the last time the homegrown song-and-dance variety outnumbered the Broadway imports?



WHEN “KATY” OPENED on Jan. 27 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, not only was it the first local production to raise its curtain this year, it was also a harbinger of sorts.

Spotlight Artist Centre’s revival of the grandmama of contemporary original Filipino musicals, produced by the trailblazing Musical Theater Philippines of Celeste Legaspi and Girlie Rodis 25 years ago, brought in its wake an unprecedented number of old and new Filipino musical works—14 in all, a record.

In our nine years of assiduous theater-watching, there never has been a musical year as eclectic as 2013. On top of the usual Broadway imports (about 12 this year—when was the last time local material outnumbered foreign ones?), there were two revivals of major Filipino works (“Katy” and “Himala, The Musical”—the latter in a thoughtfully mounted 10th-anniversary concert presentation that unveiled a leaner, more compelling version); and one take on an old work that retained the music but opted for a stripped-down amateur staging (UP Repertory’s “Lean,” based on Gary Granada’s musical on the late activist Lean Alejandro—a lyrical work that demands proper reconsideration, flecked with lines like “Ang panahon ng ligalig ang siyang magpapanday sa ating pag-ibig”).

There were also fresh works from debuting theater companies that captured enthusiastic word of mouth, particularly among the younger crowd (Culture Shock Productions’ “Sa Wakas” and Bit by Bit Company’s “Maxie The Musicale”), while two poles-apart musicals served notice that they could hold a candle to foreign spectaculars with imaginative, opulent stagecraft (Trumpets’ English-language “The Bluebird of Happiness” and Tanghalang Pilipino’s adaptation of the Bicol epic “Ibalong”).

This being Andres Bonifacio’s sesquicentennial year, a slew of flag-waving musical dramas dedicated to the revolutionary hero also marched upfront, from the unfortunately incoherent (Gantimpala Theater’s “Katipunan, mga Anak ng Bayan”) to the earnest but hysterical (Philippine Stagers Foundation’s “Bonifacio: Isang Sarsuwela”), to the majestically orchestrated and staged but quite befuddlingly written (TP’s “San Andres B.”—not a musical but a contemporary opera, but included here for purposes of this yearend roundup).

The one novel production on Bonifacio turned out to be a nonmusical play—Dulaang UP’s “Teatro Porvenir,” which offered a heretofore unknown view of Bonifacio and his cohorts as amateur theater artists, and how the creative impulse could both be inspiration and distraction in a time of revolution. (“Me puwang pa ba ang sining sa gitna ng himagsikan?,” went one character.)

But, with the onslaught of musicals local and foreign, plays like “Teatro Porvenir” were quite scarce on the calendar.

One appreciated, then, the annual bounty of new plays at the Virgin Labfest, and productions like The Necessary Theater’s “Red;” or Patrick Marber’s “Closer,” the first offering of the newly formed Red Turnip Theater; even BB Gandanghari’s bravely self-produced (if ill-directed) venture “Halik ng Tarantula” (Rene Villanueva’s Filipino translation of Manuel Puig’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman”), for bucking the song-and-dance juggernaut.

Still, there is much to cheer in the local companies’ moxie to fight fire with fire—to serve up homegrown musical fare alongside the Broadway extravaganzas that have hogged the stages and commanded the lion’s share of press attention and ticket sales.

The larger picture appears to be encouraging: Despite the entry of international touring groups with mammoth shows like “The Phantom of the Opera” and the upcoming “Wicked,” the continuing expansion of local theater, whether in largely musical directions or not, indicates it’s now farther than ever from throwing in the towel.

The coming year looks set to open with more Filipino-style storytelling through song, as Peta rings in January 2014 with the jukebox musical comedy “Rak of Aegis” (yep, of the lung-busting “Halik” and “Basang Basa sa Ulan” fame).

Of the 65 shows we saw in 2013, here’s a look back at the ones that rocked. Salute!

Best Play (One-Act)
“Isang Daan (A Hundred, or a Road)” (Liza Magtoto, playwright; Ed Lacson Jr., director). Hours before it opened in this year’s Virgin Labfest, “Isang Daan’s” lead actor was rushed to the hospital for hypertension. The director filled in by reading the lines from a held script. Despite that deflating setup, the play’s bristly humor and probing intelligence came through, jabbing at our notions of patriotism and memory, progress and assimilation with farcical but clear-eyed comic truth.

Honorable Mentions: “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady” (Carlo Vergara; Chris Martinez, director); “Imbisibol” (Herlyn Alegre; Lawrence Fajardo, director); “Chipline” (Dominique La Victoria; Charles Yee Jr., director)

Best Play (Full-Length/ Non-Filipino material)
“Red” (John Logan; Bart Guingona, director). Anchoring this first-rate treatment of John Logan’s Tony-winning play was the crackerjack tandem of Bart Guingona as the painter Mark Rothko and Joaquin Valdes as his (fictional) apprentice—a pair of hyper-articulate heads duking it out on such matters as art, money, creativity, passion, hubris, self-doubt and selling out. Guingona also directed, and, under his ministrations, this expansive drama of ideas mesmerized from beginning to end.

Honorable Mentions: “The Maids” (Jean Genet; Anton Juan, director)

Best Play (Full-Length/Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation)
“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia” (William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Filipino translation by Rolando Tinio, adaptation by Rody Vera; Tuxqs Rutaquio and Rody Vera, directors). The setup felt too schematic at times—Jews in a concentration camp forced to play equivalent characters in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” to double-underline the inhumanity of racism. But moment after moment of harrowing power also gave this reimagining, as Jessica Zafra wrote, “a thrilling urgency... [as] the play constantly twists and turns on itself, questioning Shakespeare, questioning history, challenging our fond notions about the theater.” The play’s formal audacity and intellectual rigor gleamed with the superb ensemble playing by the Tanghalang Pilipino Actors’ Company.

Honorable Mentions: “Teatro Porvenir” (Tim Dacanay; Alexander Cortez, director); “Euridice” (Sarah Ruhl’s “Eurydice,” Filipino translation by Guelan Luarca; Loy Arcenas, director); “Collection” (Floy Quintos; Dexter Santos, director); “Games People Play” (Glenn Sevilla Mas; Ed Lacson Jr., director); “Ang Baldado ng Isla Palasan” (Martin McDonagh’s “The Cripple of Inishmaan,” Filipino translation by Joshua Lim So; Tess Jamias, director); “Art” (Yasmina Reza, Filipino translation by Ian Lomonggo; JK Anicoche, director)

Best Actor-Play(One-Act)
Bart Guingona (“Red”). While nothing like the orotund Mark Rothko physically (or even Alfred Molina, who originated the role in London), Guingona applied the full heft and maturity of his actorly gifts to the character of the Russian-born abstract painter, galvanizing it to complex, nerve-jangling life.

Honorable Mentions: Jonathan Tadioan (“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia”); Topper Fabregas (“The Maids”); Bart Guingona (“Closer”); Russell Legaspi (“Teatro Porvenir”); Reb Atadero (“The Graduate”); Jojit Lorenzo (“Teatro Porvenir”); Fitz Bitaña (“Teatro Porvenir”); Joel Saracho (“Teatro Porvenir”); Abner Delina Jr. (“Games People Play”); Kalil Almonte (“Games People Play”)

Best Actress-Play
Pinky Amador (“Piaf”). The play itself was an episodic blur, but the actress at its center, like the immortal woman she embodied, was a life force of clarity and feeling. Amador’s astonishing transformation into Edith Piaf was the best piece of acting by any actor this year, bar none. The moment she sang the first bars of “Hymne à l’Amour,” you knew you were watching a performance destined for the history books.

Honorable Mentions: Teetin Villanueva (“Collection”); Regina de Vera (“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia”); Cris Villonco (“Closer”); Skyzx Labastilla (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Kiki Baento (“Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady”); Carme Sanchez (“Pamamanhikan”); Blanche Buhain (“Art”); Thea Yrastorza (“Games People Play”)

Best Featured Actor-Play
Joaquin Valdes (“Red”). “There are times that it seems Valdes and his theatrical alter ego would be swallowed by the volatility of Guingona’s Rothko,” wrote Cora Llamas in Interaksyon.com. “Fortunately, the play gives the former enough ammunition and his own complexity to hold his own.” More than hold his own, we may add. Given Valdes’ acting chops plus that stocky build, it would be interesting, in fact, to see him own the older role in perhaps a couple of decades’ time.

Honorable Mentions:
Dennis Marasigan (“Euridice”); Marco Viaña (“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia”); Leo Rialp (“Collection”); Lou Veloso (“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia); Joe Gruta (“Kanser/Noli Me Tangere”)

Best Featured Actress-Play
Jenny Jamora (“The Maids”). In a casting feat, Jamora was one of eight actors, male and female, who alternated in the role of the overbearing Madame in Anton Juan’s production of “The Maids.” We couldn’t catch everyone of them, but of the three Madames we saw, the slyly comic Jamora was the standout, slaying her one scene with poise, potency and razor-edged volatility.

Honorable Mentions: Jean Judith Javier (“Teatro Porvenir”); Racquel Pareño (“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia”); Carla Dunareanu (“Boeing Boeing”); Blanche Buhain (“Ang Baldado ng Isla Palasan”)

Best Musical (Non-Filipino Material)
“The Addams Family” (music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice; Bobby Garcia, director). Middling material, but Atlantis director Bobby Garcia managed to whip up all the other elements—ensemble, scenery, orchestration, an overall sense of giddy mischief—into a polished, lively romp that beguiled with its guilelessness. The cherry on top was Arnell Ignacio as a marvelous Gomez Addams.

Honorable Mentions: “Carrie” (music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, book by Lawrence D. Cohen; Bobby Garcia, director); “They’re Playing Our Song” (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, book by Neil Simon; Robbie Guevara, director); “Cinderella” (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Michael Williams, director); “The Producers” (music and lyrics by Mel Brooks, book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan; Jaime del Mundo, director)

Best Musical (Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation)
“Lorenzo” (music by Ryan Cayabyab, book and lyrics by Paul Dumol, Christian Vallez and Joem Antonio; Nonon Padilla, director). This is a tough call. Why not “Maxie The Musicale,” which had the loudest buzz late in the year with its sinewy libretto (by Nicolas Pichay), ear-grabbing pastiche score, fizzy performances, and Dexter Santos’ all-stops-out staging?

“Maxie” was terrifically hardworking and entertaining, but we submit that the book emerged stronger than the music (and certainly the heartfelt but uneven singing).

“Lorenzo,” however, has some of Ryan Cayabyab’s most magnificent—and magnificently sung—music in years, wed to Paul Dumol, Christian Vallez and Joem Antonio’s filigree lyrics (the play’s characters come to grips with martyrdom with the words, “Nang sa aming kaparusahan, pag-ibig Mo ay maitanghal”).

The script was flabby and repetitive, and, like Santos’ overgilded “Maxie,” one would be of two minds about Nonon Padilla’s direction, which trawled the breadth of Japanese (or Japanese-inspired) iconography—Kabuki, “Rashomon,” animé and manga, sakura, the founding myths of Amaterasu, Masahiro Shinoda’s film “Silence,” Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures”—to retell the clash of cultures that led to Lorenzo Ruiz’s accidental sainthood in Edo-era Japan.

But this was no proselytizing hymnal masquerading as a musical. Padilla sidestepped the hagiography, the preachy pieties expected of texts of a catechetical bent, to create a profoundly human story grappling with existential questions of crime, punishment and redemption.

Throughout, Cayabyab’s rock-tinged score soared, screamed, gutted the heart and summoned sempiternal grace—to approximate, at its best moments (helped along by the hyper-theatrical staging), a pure, ecstatic rapture. It is, to our mind, a major work in this or any other year.

Honorable mentions: “Maxie The Musicale” (music by William Elvin Manzano, JJ Pimpinio and Janine Santos; book and lyrics by Nicolas Pichay; Dexter Santos, director); “Sa Wakas” (music and lyrics by Ebe Dancel, book by Andrei Pamintuan and Ina Abuan; Andrei Pamintuan, director); “Himala, The Musical—10th Anniversary Concert” (music by Vince de Jesus, lyrics by Vince de Jesus and Ricky Lee, book by Ricky Lee; Soxie Topacio, director); “Ibalong” (music by Carol Bello, book and lyrics by Rody Vera; Tuxqs Rutaquio, director); “The Bluebird of Happiness” (music by Rony Fortich; book, lyrics and direction by Jaime del Mundo); “Katy” (music by Ryan Cayabyab, book and lyrics by José Javier Reyes; Nestor Torre, director)

Best Actor-Musical
Poppert Bernadas (“Lorenzo”). Bernadas is a veteran performer as a member of the pop-vocal group The Ryan Cayabyab Singers; but as a theater actor, he’d been in only two productions before “Lorenzo:” “Magsimula Ka” (2010) and “Katy” (2013), both in minor parts. You wouldn’t know that from the vocal and emotive abilities he employed in “Lorenzo” to wrench a fully realized human character—who also sang the hell out of the punishing score—out of the plaster saint.

Honorable Mentions: Arnell Ignacio (“The Addams Family”); Jayvhot Galang (“Maxie The Musicale”); Nonie Buencamino (“The King and I”); Victor Robinson III (“Sa Wakas”); Fred Lo (“Sa Wakas”); Audie Gemora (“No Way to Treat a Lady”); Lorenz Martinez (“Lorenzo”); Robbie Zialcita (“The Producers”); Anton Posadas (“The Bluebird of Happiness”)

Best Actress-Musical
Mikkie Bradshaw (“Carrie”). It’s one of the year’s biggest theater stories—how Bradshaw opened “Carrie” to acclaim, only to fall sick right after, such that K-La Rivera had to learn the part in six days to fill in for her. But on the show’s last weekend, Bradshaw was back onstage, and the early verdict proved correct: “Carrie” was a breakout moment for this fierce young talent.

Honorable Mentions: Isay Alvarez (“Katy”); Aicelle Santos (“Katy”); K-La Rivera (“Carrie”); Nikki Gil (“They’re Playing Our Song”); Julia Abueva (“Cinderella”); Eula Valdes (“The Addams Family”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“The King and I”); Cris Villonco (“D’Wonder Twins of Boac”); Delphine Buencamino (“Ibalong”); Jenine Desiderio (“Ibalong”); Chimmy Kohchet Chua (“The Bluebird of Happiness”); Caisa Borromeo (“Sa Wakas”)

Best Featured Actor-Musical
Audie Gemora (“The Producers”). Flat-out hilarious as the cross-dressing washed-up director Roger De Bris. But true to camp’s affectionate nature, Gemora also imbued his flaming alter ego with a soft, bashful side that made his Judy-Garland-in-Carnegie-Hall moment, during the riot “Springtime for Hitler” number, such a doozy delight.

Honorable Mentions: Tirso Cruz III (“Katy”); Jamie Wilson (“The Full Monty”); Jojo Riguerra (“Maxie The Musicale”); Juliene Mendoza (“Lorenzo”); Noel Rayos (“Lorenzo”); Terence Guillermo (“Lorenzo”); Aaron Ching (“Maxie The Musicale”); Joel Trinidad (“The Bluebird of Happiness”); Cheeno Macaraig (“Ibalong”); Noel Rayos (“The Producers”); Joel Trinidad (“The Producers”); Antonio Ferrer (“San Andres B”); Rafa Siguion-Reyna (“Grease”)

Best Featured Actress-Musical
Dulce (“Katy”). She had big shoes to fill—Celeste Legaspi was the original Olivia, the faded diva who would sing “Minsan ang Minahal Ay Ako” with the young Katy, in the landmark musical’s inaugural run over two decades ago—but Dulce, no slouch herself as a singing superstar, easily made the role her own with her commanding voice and presence.

Honorable Mentions: Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“Carrie”); Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (“Lorenzo”); Isay Alvarez (“Himala, The Musical—10th Anniversary Concert”); Dulce (“Himala, The Musical—10th Anniversary Concert”); Margarita Roco (“San Andres B”); G Töngi (“The Producers”); Pinky Marquez (“No Way to Treat a Lady”); Lynn Sherman (“The Bluebird of Happiness”)

Best Director
Tuxqs Rutaquio. For two topnotch productions—“Der Kaufmann/Ang Negosyante ng Venecia” and “Ibalong,” one a provocative transposition of Shakespeare (co-directed with adaptor Rody Vera), the other a roaring neo-ethnic dance-musical—that showcased Rutaquio’s range and acuity as a director and his expert way with ensembles. A third work, the small-scale musical “Sandosenang Sapatos,” was a minor affair that nevertheless still throbbed with the emotional eloquence characteristic of Rutaquio’s output.

He also did double duty as set designer for all three productions (and played Antonio in a couple of “Der Kaufmann” performances). Already the most accomplished young director to emerge from the Virgin Labfest, Rutaquio represents a new generation of creative multi-hyphenates stirring the theater scene. He is an exciting artist to watch.

Honorable Mentions: Bart Guingona (“Red”); Nonon Padilla (“Lorenzo”); Bobby Garcia (“Carrie,” “The Addams Family”); Jaime del Mundo (“The Bluebird of Happiness”); Dexter Santos (“Maxie The Musicale”); Soxie Topacio (“Himala, The Musical—10th Anniversary Concert”); Ed Lacson Jr. (“Isang Daan,” “Games People Play”)

Artistic and technical standouts
Rody Vera’s impressive feat of four scripts produced this year—“D’Wonder Twins of Boac,” “Ibalong,” “Der Kaufmann” and the commissioned Ninoy and Cory Aquino musical “Pamana”; John Batalla’s lighting, ubiquitous as always but particularly strong in “The Graduate,” “Der Kaufmann” and “The Bluebird of Happiness”; Gino Gonzales’ brilliant production design of rampart balikbayan boxes and graphic-print kimonos for “Lorenzo,” his slice-of-Sampaloc scenery for “Maxie The Musicale,” and origami costumes and panels for “Alice in Wonderland”; Mio Infante’s lavish storybook visuals for “The Bluebird of Happiness” and ingenious jukebox set for “Grease”; Faust Peneyra’s set of fraying boards and shutters for “Piaf” and, especially, the singkaban bamboo frame he employed for “Teatro Porvenir”; and Leeroy New’s fantastical costumes for “Ibalong.”

Also, Vince de Jesus’ splendid musical direction and vocal coaching for “Himala: The Musical—10th Anniversary Concert”; Ryan Cayabyab and Dingdong Fiel’s robust work on “Lorenzo,” a model for how a live band should sound vis-à-vis musical theater; ditto for Ceejay Javier’s orchestrations for “Carrie” and “The Addams Family”; Ejay Yatco’s musical arrangements and direction for “Sa Wakas”; Rony Fortich’s luscious sound for “The Bluebird of Happiness”; “Euridice’s” austere music, courtesy of Teresa Barroso; Dexter Santos’ irresistible choreography for “Maxie The Musicale,” which also redefined energetic dancing this year; “Red’s” lived-in art-studio set, by Damien Anne and Baby Imperial-Anne; Andrew Botha’s grandiose scenery and Aksana Sidarava’s costumes for “Cinderella”; and Chino Toledo’s masterful orchestration of his own operatic score for “San Andres B.”

[“Lorenzo” Photo credit: JORY RIVERA]

6 comments:

Carver said...

Thank you, Gibbs! :-)

VINCEN GREGORY YU said...

100% agree with Mikkie! I'd exchange "Carrie" with "Addams," but what a way for Atlantis to end the year with those 2 splendid productions, eh?

Piaf is strange. Elena Roger won the Olivier for Actress in a Musical in 2009 for that part. So..

gibbs cadiz said...

vince, the original classification by the Tonys for it was as a play, and Jane Lapotaire as Best Actress in a Play. thought it made sense. :)

VINCEN GREGORY YU said...

Ah right., well that's cleared up. Cheers to the Gibbie Awards! :D

Guelan Luarca said...

Thanks Sir Gibbs! :)

margaroco said...

Many thanks!!

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