Thursday, November 9, 2017

'Geography' & 'Shapes'

A little background: Back in 2014, I submitted some poems to Sentinel Literary Quarterly, an online magazine based in the UK, and two of them got accepted. Part of the deal was a contributor's copy (always the best part for me, more than the pay). Then, the months started passing with no word from the pub. I emailed the editors, even contacted the literary editor through Messenger (I was seenzoned several times), until finally I decided they were probably a fly-by-night thing. Fast forward to a month ago, when on a whim, I checked to see if the pub is still up. Been running smoothly, from the looks of it, except for a blank in the timeline corresponding to that period when my poems should have appeared. I emailed the editor, this time without expecting any sort of immediate response, but the very next day, I got an answer. They told me the issue where my poems should have appeared never got published, and that they can publish my work in their next issue, if I like. So here we are. And here's the link to the issue's pdf:

http://www.sentinelquarterly.com/october-december-2017-online.pdf

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Shapes


The lemon tree makes a curious shape
in the way it bends to the sky: stooped,
slight dent along the delicate stem,
as if praying to heaven or asking

what shape the rain takes as it plummets
in a raging storm. To be old and still bear
fruit--yellow, flock of children navigating
an empty museum at daytime; sour,

the aftertaste of troubled marriages--
is quite enviable. It means the capacity
to create is still intact, like looking
beyond the window and asking the glass

what shape the moon takes at midnight,
hoping to imitate its spectral glow, the curve
where darkness meets the light.
This morning, the lemon tree travelled

one inch farther from its mound of earth,
but also, nearer to when it shall finally stop
trying to outgrow the rest of the garden--
the nonstop pendulum of bamboo stalks,

the roses blossoming in summer--
and learn to let go of the one perfect fruit
hanging from the one perfect branch,
the shape of sadness trapped in the bubble

of tears, when a father's face has turned
away after his daughter's wedding.
Tonight, the lemon tree stands content
with the geometry of its place--the triangle

of leaves moist with dewdrops, the parallel
branches bearing weight of the future fruit,
the shape of the unborn seed in its watery
womb, where even strangers tend to its needs,

and an old man's need to see circles and squares
take the form of boisterous grandchildren,
like saplings breaking through the soil
for the first time.

After Larry Ypil

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Geography


Tonight, my lover promised we would go places:
edge of the sun or rim of a lunar crater,
circle the burst of stars in our patch of sky,
hitch a ride on a spinning asteroid
and feel how space invades the distance
straddling two electric bodies.

Here was our house, next to Moscow
and the frost that permeates its empty squares.
Every morning, we woke to bells ringing
from the onion domes of St. Basil's,
sounds we imagined mailed to our window
by melting snow, the hurtling wind.

My lover believed in all things real and imagined,
and I, the rest that hover in between.

In the place where they sell coffins,
I first saw her, looking from beneath the glass
reflecting the whites of her eyes, her body
a lazy shadow supine in its polished casing.
I took her, there and then, on a trip around the globe,
painting portraits of ruins and walls, hillside
trees, a field of wildflower, mountains.
She devoured the sights, the moving pictures,
down to the final shred of celluloid.

Stop--Touch this acre of soft earth.
Here was the place for the invention of promise:
bend of the harsh ray of light
and spark of the first gleam of life.
Notice how everything collapses to its core,
how nothing seems able to withstand
the pull of gravity. This is also a place
for broken things, and for things to be broken.
Shards of glass collect on the bleeding feet,
wounds refusing to close with every washing.
Here was where we landed last night:
not in Zurich or Oslo, balmy Barcelona,
the lofty heights of Denver or swampy New Orleans,
but a house of stone and fog, both solid and wisp,
like whispers inhabiting the space between our mouths.
Here, our words are nothing but air.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

'Flat Places' & 'Good Vibrations'

I'm finally--finally--in the Philippines Graphic. The day my dad died, I received the acceptance letter for two of my poems. One's inspired by Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese," which we briefly tackled during the IWP Workshop last April. The other's inspired by the movie "Love and Mercy," where Paul Dano does a mean Brian Wilson.

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Flat Places


Let your body fold into mine, soft
as the animal that fed on Mary Oliver's
despair and chased the wild geese
straight to an imagined moon.

It isn't real if the retina
can't remember it: A sea of lunar craters
dissolves in the chiaroscuro glow
of a dying afternoon.

You are still, and I am still
a mile and a decade away, still as a body
of water beneath the cyclone's
eye. Fly to me,

where the ocean is real,
and nothing eludes vision, for I know
how good you are. I know
what tragedy

looks like: the lambent gleam
of a nebula falling on an empty house,
watched over by a skein
fleeing the hurricane.

I know the thrill of running
away from home, thinking you will end
this running someday. But you
never will. Trust me, you

who weep over places
you believe you will never see: flat
places, torched places, torn
and toppled places,

not knowing the only places
that matter are the ones hidden
in the folds of your body.
Trust me, baby.

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Good Vibrations

--The Beach Boys, 1966.


The trick is in pretending she never really left.
After supper, two shots of gin, then a brandy

finish to start off the night. He plops himself
down on the couch, curled like a comma

a billion sizes too big. If you look
closely, you can see the hurt in him

throbbing like a thickened artery. Close my eyes,
she's somehow closer now, goes the phonograph

she bought from a yard sale next door. Cities
grow and fade, leaves turn a lush green

then the rich color of rust, but here he remains
in the crux of all this neighborly flux, gentle

as the last dream she had of him. It was Brian,
she said, on a moon-drenched beach, undulating

into the creased horizon. They looked
at each other, and that was the end,

and now her epitaph reads, When I look
in her eyes, she goes with me to a blossom world.

He likes it, he thinks, likes the way
it makes him think of orchids and poppies

nestled on the sand. Somewhere, a shot
is being taken: two people, the waves,

and the smooth bend of the edgeless blue.
Nobody smiles, eyes yielding blanks

stark as black pearls on the wrong ocean.
Nobody blinks, and nobody leaves.

Friday, November 3, 2017

New river, full moon


Finally got back to walking today. Used to run the Iloilo Esplanade--twin trails on the banks of the city's river, an outdoor recreational attraction modeled after Singapore's Clarke Quay, but without the swanky lights and party vibe--until the left leg started hurting like mad months ago. That was after the Japan trip, and so had to go to rehab for a month and a half. Lumbar strain was what the doc said.  Suspend all physical exertion for best results.

Did a round this afternoon, plus a side trip to phase three of the Esplanade--a skate and bike park on what used to be a seedy, sleazy hotspot, or so memory tells. On the way back, saw that the mangrove saplings planted a year ago have significantly grown, but on their feet, garbage, probably brought in by the tide, as can't imagine how one could summon the audacity to litter on such a place. What a sorry sight. Perhaps that audacity does exist among certain people in this city, this heedlessness to cleanliness, to self-discipline.

Crossing the bridge, witnessed a bird migration, or what looked like a migration. Those specks of fluttering wings probably numbered upwards of a thousand. Impossible to arrive at an exact number, but the whole aerial parade seemed endless. They flew close to the water surface and rose along a path to reach a considerable height once above the bridge's human traffic. 

Full moon today, the moon already hanging on the sky long before sundown. Bright as a pearl immune to gravity. Perhaps mother will return to walking these trails again. Perhaps it won't remind her so much of father, who walked with her after work. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

In brief, a death in the family

There was hardly any time to mourn.

Preparing a funeral that fused both traditional Chinese and modern-day sensibilities was nothing if not draining. A mind-over-matter sort of thing: One must plow forward despite the tears, that others may shed them on one's behalf. 

My father would have been 64 by All Souls' Day. But when your time's up, it's just up. There's no bargaining with the fact.

I've been in Iloilo since the 7th, and will be staying here for the rest of the year. Dead-ass tired is what's become of me. Who knew it would end like this? Who knew gram-negative pneumonia would get him in the end, instead of his on-and-off bleeding problem from a liver that's screwed for life? 

So this is where I've been, and this is where I'm at. And this is where we move forward.

Monday, October 23, 2017

PDI Review: 'The Quiet Ones' by Glenn Diaz

In today's paper, my first book review! Glenn Diaz's "The Quiet Ones" will be launched on Nov. 10. Also, I'm a cover blurb! 

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In 'The Quiet Ones,' Glenn Diaz pulverizes banality to oblivion


Glenn Diaz's "The Quiet Ones," which won the biannual Palanca Award for Novel this year, begins like a thriller: a man in an airport, a suspicious black bag, the police not far behind.

The man is Alvin, whom the authorities are pursuing for a money-laundering scheme he had engineered at the company where he worked as a call center agent.

But swiftly, the pretense of a crime story is discarded. What unfolds is a tale at once intimate and sprawling, in which the minutiae matter just as much as the most prominent plot points. Whoever said writers should be foremost observers must have had Diaz in mind.

Fragmented into several chapters that could each stand on its own--the novel, after all, is largely composed of the author's earlier short stories--"The Quiet Ones" flits across the first decade of 21st-century Philippines, more interested in the portraiture of those who knew Alvin than in solving his felony.

In 2001, under the specter of the Dos Palmas kidnappings in Palawan, Spanish divorcée Carolina carries on a May-December tryst with Reynaldo, a Philippine Military Academy cadet, on the beaches of Pagudpud, where a college-aged Alvin becomes their neighbor at the transient house.

In 2005, with Jasmine Trias in "American Idol," Karen, one of Alvin's colleagues at the call center, becomes entangled in a relationship with their Texan operations manager Brock.

In 2007, Alvin returns to Pagudpud with Scott, his American anthropologist boyfriend who must have been born obnoxious. At one point, they find themselves watching a telecast of a Manny Pacquiao fight in a bus, now momentarily parked by the Ilocos countryside for the benefit of all.

And in 2009, with Hayden Kho's sex videos storming the Internet, two of Alvin's colleagues, Eric and Philip, reconnect a year after the great heist, driving to a remote Tarlac town to the wake of a stranger who happens to share Philip's name--and had fatally flung himself in front of a bus.

At its core, "The Quiet Ones" is a remarkably intelligent paean to life in sweaty, rubbish-strewn Metro Manila, something only one who has really experienced the streets of the capital city we all love to hate--who understands the frustrations of middle-class life in this urban heartland--could have written.

It is also an entertaining, highly accessible look at post-colonial Filipino identity, not so much a raised middle finger to Western imperialism as an attempt--and a successful one at that--to embody a generation still struggling with its "mixed" heritage.

The best aspects of this novel, however, are the ones that turn seemingly insignificant details into literary gold, finely balancing sass, humor and in-your-face realness.

Witness, for example, the way a phone call unfolds between Alvin and an airline ticket agent, how the author populates the latter's station with "a mangy teddy bear with an 'I'm sorry' sign" and "dog-eared post-its"; how the call-center floor rings with, among other things, "a supervisor's Mariah Carey playlist"; how a mid-afternoon deluge is summarized in a passage: "What was apocalypse to some was just Tuesday to Manileños."

And when the characters get aboard the capital's embarrassingly meager train system, the novel simply soars with Diaz's astute skill for observation, the megalopolis--its perennial floods, GI roofs and glamorous skyscrapers--unfolding with a newness both attractive and revolting.

This is Diaz pulverizing banality to oblivion--and who knew what a thrill that could be?

Saturday, September 23, 2017

PDI Review: 'A Game of Trolls' by PETA

In today's paper, my last theater review--at least, until the madness of pre-residency season subsides. #MarcosNotaHero.

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'A Game of Trolls': On the other hand, bravo for advocacy


As advocacies go, "A Game of Trolls," Philippine Educational Theater Association's (Peta) latest musical directed by Maribel Legarda and written by Liza Magtoto, is the one show you have to see this month.

For the unaware, the title is a pun on the George R. R. Martin fantasy novel that has been transformed into the phenomenal TV series. But in this musical, the realist background dwarfs the make-believe elements it anchors.

In the present, the protagonist, Hector, is part of a company of trolls who defend Ferdinand Marcos' dictatorship from posts and comments that dare speak the truth about that despicable era in history. For Hector and his ilk, it's not selling your soul to the devil if it brings food to the table. "Trabaho lang," to use the expression.

Top marks for timeliness, then: Peta's newest martial law musical arrives at a crucial time, in which the revisionist movement to perfume the name of the Marcoses, an act spurred on by the Duterte administration, is in full swing. (Last week, the dead dictator's birthday was declared a holiday in his home province--Malacañang's doing, of course.)

Compelling

As a reminder of our horrific past, the musical is compelling, presenting the atrocities of that time through means as simple as a mother narrating the abuses she suffered, and as novel, if not Dickensian, as the ghosts of martial law victims Dr. Bobby dela Paz and Ed Jopson literally transcending technological barriers.

But this production's branding--"a martial law musical for millennials"--is its undoing.

The attempts to "freshen up" the milieu are obvious: characters who belong to the target generation, artistic details meant to reflect the party-going and gadget-dependent lifestyle, a love story endowed with dollops of kilig, etc.

Superficial comprehension

But it all conveys a rather superficial comprehension of millennial culture, for there is so much more than just strobe lights, laptops and sappy romcoms to this generation. It's an understandable simplification that deprives the fictional world of further depth and dimension.

Even the story's emotional bulwark--a mother-and-son relationship embroiled in resentment--unravels like halfhearted melodrama.

To say that old-fashioned sensibilities run this show would be accurate; this musical, though supposedly pegged for the youth, sounds and feels like something that came from their parents' closets.

The songs (by Vincent de Jesus) don't resemble anything you'd hear in the airwaves these days; they seem to belong to an earlier era of musical theater (though as that, they are stirring).

Less certain

In fact, the only time the show thoroughly engaged the high school students who filled the theater (alongside this millennial author) was during the penultimate number: a rap battle. The rest of the time, it was like they were in history class, passively watching the lesson unfold.

The efforts to tie up the past and the present are laudable. Halfway through, a long-haired showgirl in army fatigues who may or may not remind you of Mocha Uson facilitates a dream sequence involving torture methods. And a song centered on the extrajudicial killings condoned by today's government opens Act II.

Unfortunately, this dive into current events doesn't feel fully explored. Though clearly fueled by the noblest intentions, the musical ends up way more confident when it journeys back in time than when it is making sense of the present.

The facts are irrefutable: The reign of the Marcoses was the rule of murderous despots and plunderers who don't belong in an imagined gray area of the national consciousness, but in prison. The musical trying to tell that to a new generation, however, is a less certain creature.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

PDI Review: 'Aurelio Sedisyoso' by Tanghalang Pilipino

In today's Inquirer, my second-to-the-last review for the theater section--here. That is, until I'm done with the madness that is pre-residency.

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'Aurelio Sedisyoso' is a spectacle--a loud and arduous one


The brains behind Tanghalang Pilipino's award-winning "Mabining Mandirigma" are back with a  new musical, "Aurelio Sedisyoso," a so-called "rock sarswela" dramatizing the life of playwright Aurelio Tolentino during the early years of the American Occupation.

So you have to wonder why the only touch of genius in this show comes in the form of spectacle.

The venue, the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Little Theater, which happens to be formally named after the musical's protagonist, has been upended. Viewers now occupy the stage, most of them on the least ergonomic bleachers, while the set has been erected atop the theater seats.

It's a daring, against-the-norm layout. But now the challenge for sound designer TJ Ramos is projecting the sound into the stage, and for lighting designer Katsch Catoy, aiming the lights away from it. The result is a production that sounds rugged--in many instances, tone-deaf and deafening--and literally looks dark, obscuring, if not distorting, GA Fallarme's projections.

These sensory impairments are complemented by Toym Imao's set: a sprawling, cross-shaped ramp surrounded on all sides by statues on plinths. Is this a Christian grotto? Most likely not, judging by how the whole display is used--or left underused--throughout the show (begging the more basic question: What exactly is all this supposed to be?)

Urgent problems

The more urgent problems of this musical, however, go beyond incoherent design elements.

Short of calling it a narrative mess, "Aurelio" is an arduous thing to follow. In its laborious, nearly three-hour running time, metaphors are littered; incidents are crammed between jarring transitions; and various tropes--a scene playing out like a silent film on fast-forward, a rap battle, etc.--are utilized to tell a story that races through its plot points like a horse on steroids.

As it is, the production directed by Chris Millado and written by Nicanor Tiongson feels like a raw first draft in serious need of major whittling.

In fact, the only character that jumps off the page and strikes you as fully flesh and blood is Aurelio himself, played magnificently by David Ezra as an embodiment of the largeness and loudness of this musical's soul.

Everybody else feels like half-baked portraits--though, yes, Phi Palmos and Kakki Teodoro, as two women who figure prominently in the story, are more corporeal than the rest.

Rock component

With Joed Balsamo's music, one needs to return to the branding: "rock sarswela." And "Aurelio" is definitely more successful, if not more comfortable, with sarswela.

One may even argue that the rock component is lacking, never mind that the musical highlight turns out to be a rap number, ironically; and that the antagonist Tikbalang, a shape-shifting incarnation of Uncle Sam, is visibly ill-fitting in his rock numbers--or at least, as played by the usually excellent Jonathan Tadioan (alternating with screen actor Baron Geisler).

That Balsamo seems to take after Stephen Sondheim in his score's generous use of dissonance is impressive. But that dissonance as a musical aesthetic is something the cast hasn't quite grasped yet. And that scattering of bum notes and harmonies is also accompanied by a rather wan interpretation of Denisa Reyes' choreography.

Brevity and clarity

Many times, one is reminded of "Mabining Mandirigma," as shades of its success find their way into "Aurelio's" songs and dances, its orchestrations, and even the basic structure.

But unlike "Mabini," whose ambitious pageantry was well-matched by an introspective streak, "Aurelio" appears to be all flash and bang, with an inchoate interior.

James Reyes' costumes, mostly blacks and whites, do wonders in advancing the metaphors, but the instances that work in this production are far outnumbered by the ones that glaringly don't.

An act of sedition may be the only recourse: a second life for "Aurelio," perhaps, one that places brevity and clarity above all else? 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

PDI Review: 'West Side Story' - The Centennial World Tour in Manila

My review of the "West Side Story" Centennial World Tour is in today's paper--here. The production runs for a very limited time--until August 27, next Sunday--before flying off to Singapore.

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Silence and shadow and smallness in a stunning 'West Side Story'


Finally, a well-written musical!

That is not a judgment on the overall quality of the musical theater productions of the past seven months. But take away the performances and the myriad of design elements, and what's left are stories that could use some more pruning and polish, if not a major makeover--a sentiment that applies across the board, from "Care Divas" to "Sa Wakas," "Kinky Boots" to "Newsies."

It goes without saying that this (so far) less-than-outstanding year in musical theater is a product of the material companies choose, and not necessarily a reflection of how plays are written nowadays.

"West Side Story" at The Theatre at Solaire should be an opportune reminder of how they used to make 'em. Granted, the musical is basically Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" transposed to the Manhattan ganglands of old. But here is a world crafted conscientiously, the ups and downs of the plot grounded on reason, a story that does not rely on lazy narration, illogical shortcuts or easy doses of fantasy to move it along.

That this staging of the Bernstein-Sondheim classic is terrifically mounted is all the more reason to pay this touring production a visit.

Watching this "West Side Story" actually sometimes feels like watching an art film (and no, we're not talking about the 1961 adaptation that, in retrospect, deprived the "Somewhere" ballet sequence of its true magic and profundity, watering it down into a simple-minded duet).

Sense of brevity

In this production, nothing--not even the grandest dance numbers--comes across as existing solely for  surface entertainment. There is a palpable invitation to look further and probe deeper into the line readings, the blocking and choreography, the set and lights and costumes.

What is most striking is the emphasis on silence and shadow and smallness--elements that, curiously enough, amplify the emotional aspects of the show.

Aided by the venue's topnotch acoustics, the dialogue acquires a sense of brevity. The orchestrations, conducted by Donald Chan, are tight and disciplined, not one note prolonged needlessly.

The silences that follow the nonmusical scenes only amplify the young characters' feeling of being adrift in an adult world they can hardly navigate. This smallness is further highlighted as they are framed against the hulking set of posts and balconies, metal rails and pull-down stairs.

And the lights--and the silhouettes they create--play a major role in pushing a raft of emotional buttons. You feel the apprehension of the characters as the spotlights turn into crimson circles, and understand the internal journeys these kids undertake just by looking at the backdrop subtly shifting across its sunset palette. 

Not faultless

This "West Side Story" is not faultless. Its blunders are particularly jarring in some crucial scenes in the second act, which Jenna Burns (as Maria) mishandles, coming across as an overeager imitation of the naïve Lea Michele in the first season of "Glee."

But what are a few misses compared to the visually stunning whole? Here, members of the rival gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, each feel organic without hamming it up. Here, Maria's lover Tony takes the form of Kevin Hack, singing marvelously while imbuing the role with a precise mixture of youthful verve, romanticism and authority.

And, to put it mildly: The dancing--Joey McKneely's superlative recreation of the original Jerome Robbins choreography, now brought to thrilling life by a cast of triple threats--deserves every bit of the stage time it gets, if not more.

Considering the brief life of the modern musical, 1957--the year "West Side Story" had its first audiences--should feel like eons ago already. Yet, this production never feels stale or irrelevant; it moves with fiery urgency, each dip and spin and pirouette ensuring the final picture is awash in the kind of literary and artistic merits that timeless pieces of theater are made of.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Seven months gone

 Himeji Castle, 2017-06-09.

Seven months gone. Already.

I finished "The Leftovers" the other day. I don't know that I can actually summon the right word to encapsulate the magnificent, almost spiritual experience of watching this. Makes you see just how truly awful the Philippine television industry is, if only to base on the output. Now I've started on the second season of "Fargo," alongside the new "Game of Thrones" on Mondays.

Last night, I saw "Miss Sloane"--the stupidest movie of 2016. In an alternate universe, Jessica Chastain would have won her second Oscar (the first for "Zero Dark Thirty"), but this steaming pile of shit simply does not deserve her. 

I'm at the airport again, this time with family. Japan seems like a long time ago already. More so the Bicol trip with the girls. I've yet to blog about either, so I'll just leave you some pictures. Heck, I haven't even finished the Taipei travelogue; don't know if I will.

The past few days here in Iloilo have been pretty wet. How's your side of the world?

The approach to Legazpi City. May 2017.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

PDI Review: 'Newsies' by 9 Works Theatrical

My review of 9 Works' "Newsies" at that outdoor theater in BGC is in today's paper--here. Will now go on a reviewing hiatus; see you at "West Side Story." "Newsies" runs until next weekend; "Kinky Boots" closes tomorrow.

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Forget the story--'Newsies' is superb acrobatic pageantry


Who needs a good story, or at least a well-written book, when you can have the riveting spectacle of dancing men?

That seems to be the idea implicit in "Newsies," 9 Works Theatrical's latest venture at the Globe Iconic Amphitheater in Bonifacio Global City. The musical, adapted from the 1992 Disney musical of the same name, is a woefully distended creature, taking longer than it should to tell its tale of underdogs battling money-grabbing masters.

The story: In turn-of-the-century New York, Jack Kelly and his fellow newsies stand up to the powers that be and win the day. But Harvey Fierstein's book is so bloated, it would float straight to the stratosphere were it made of helium.

The score by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) is an uneven mix, with only a few songs, like the wistful opening "Santa Fe," latching onto the brain.

Wholly original

It's the dancing that pumps life into this musical. And in this 9 Works production directed by Robbie Guevara, the choreography is a wholly original invention by PJ Rebullida.

It's not every day that dance takes center stage in musical theater. But what a fortuitous month this has been, with "Newsies" running alongside another production that flaunts all-stops-out dancing--Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's "Kinky Boots," with its bevy of high-heeled, hysterically flexible drag queens.

In "Newsies," it's the sight of balletic man-boys, tumbling and pirouetting every so often, that seizes the viewer's attention. This acrobatic pageantry becomes even more impressive when one considers the fact that not all of them are seasoned dancers.

Rebullida's work really perks this production up; some of the numbers, like the tap-dancing congregation of "King of New York," would ring callow without his choreography.

Leading-man aplomb

The other reason to see this "Newsies" is Gian Magdangal, who returns to local stages after a few years of performing abroad. As Jack Kelly, Magdangal is a vision of leading-man aplomb, launching himself into the heart of the character without exaggeration.

It's this sort of unembellished acting and charismatic self-assurance that sets him and Jef Flores (as Davie, who acts as Kelly's right-hand man) apart from the ensemble. The two of them stand out without blatantly meaning to, while behind them, various accents, sometimes unintelligible dialogue and unnecessary physical gestures are thrown everywhere.

Not that the ensemble is wholly at fault here: "Newsies" is a story populated by a magnitude of one-note roles, just a few of which become credible characters in more experienced hands--say, Greg Dulcie as the antagonistic publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer and Pinky Marquez, in the dispensable part of the actress Medda Larkin.

This unrealistic quality also haunts Ed Lacson's set--impressive in scale, but lacking in texture--and Martin Esteva's disconcertingly aimless lighting design.

One may argue that the point here is not realism; this is, after all, a "kiddie" musical, constructed with topnotch entertainment values and convenient happy endings in mind. But as kiddie musicals go, the world, to play on a lyric, has certainly known better.

Where 9 Works' "Newsies" succeeds, then, is in diminishing the scale of its source's flaws. Here, the spotlight burns brightest on a pair of engaging lead performances and some of the finest dancing local musical theater has seen this decade. Now there's a worthy headline.