Sunday, September 27, 2015

PDI Review: 'Mundong Entablado' by the One Night Stand cabaret series

It was a privilege to write this piece--the website version here. To many more smashing nights like this at the One Night Stand cabaret. 

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'Mundong Entablado': A sensational night for the original Filipino musical

"Pambayad ng trophy!" chirped Nonie Buencamino during the opening spiel of "Mundong Entablado," the one-night-only fund-raising concert for the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists' Group (Philstage) held Sept. 1 at 12 Monkeys Music Hall & Pub in Century City Mall, Makati City.

The "trophy" in question was a jocular reference to the Gawad Buhay! Awards for the Performing Arts, which Philstage has been handing out for the past seven years in a ceremony that, while definitely no match against the scale and spectacle of the Aliw Awards, can already claim to be the most legitimate of its kind.

Festive reunion

"Mundong Entablado," the fifth edition of the One Night Stand cabaret series pioneered by Joaquin Valdes, Chinie Concepcion and Mica Pineda, proved to be more festive reunion than concert, like one huge artistic family coming together for two hours of belting and repartee. The air was rife with familiarity, the sense of celebration quite infectious.

Since its inception last April, One Night Stand had so far been about uneven singing and tipsy bantering, its theme nights providing a venue for theater actors to let their hair down and let the alcohol do half the talking and singing (in keeping with the art form's true spirit).

Last month's edition was a glorious departure from the mold: Carla Guevara-Laforteza's 40th birthday concert. It was a scorcher of an evening, her take on Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Unexpected Song" quite the bravura showstopper, one of those ephemeral moments theater worshipers live for.

"Mundong Entablado," directed by Topper Fabregas, deigned to raise the bar even higher for the monthly cabaret: Its theme was the original Filipino musical.

Even in timing, it was already a cheeky move. Only a year ago, theatergoers and the culture-loving public were treated to something rather similar, but of much grander proportions: "Musikal!"--the 45th anniversary concert of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

"It was a night bigger than any other,"we wrote, as the who's who of the local performing arts descended upon the palatial Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo in a starry rendezvous.

Smaller setup

"Mundong Entablado" was a much smaller setup with fewer performers--downscaled to the max, to use the pedestrian expression.

But the concert itself was, in a word, sensational. Buencamino, together with Bituin Escalante, Sweet Plantado-Tiongson, Cris Villonco, Kim Molina, OJ Mariano and Sandino Martin--all of them having starred in original Filipino musicals--stormed the stage and, again, to use a common phrase, sang the hell out of the night.

Count them--17 numbers, including four medleys, representing 16 musicals. Still, already clocking in at a little over two hours, the selection felt oddly limited.

For one, there was the lack of English language work such as Trumpets' visually stunning "The Bluebird of Happiness," or 4th Wall Theatre Company's "Rivalry."

And, given that more than half of the selection were musicals shows within the last five years or so, this ostensible preference for recent work missed the likes of Dulaang UP's (DUP) "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" and "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini"--both premiered splashily to acclaim last year--or the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) warhorse "Care Divas," or the late great Mario O'Hara's "Stageshow" (in which Buencamino danced up quite a storm three years ago).

More original Filipino musicals are being staged and restaged these days, and more importantly, being patronized by audiences. Parallel to this happy development, the days when exclusivity and territoriality governed the country's various theater companies appear to have largely vanished now, with everyone from directors to designers freely hopping from one company to another, wherever work may be found.

It's a tighter, more harmonious community, where the goal is simply to put on a darn good show.

Bountiful age

Look no further for proof of this bountiful age than in Peta's "Rak of Aegis," which, having played more than 200 shows in less than two years, already occupies its own legendary perch in the industry. Beyond being a wildly entertaining work, it has also become sort of a gold standard in crafting a jukebox musical.

That "Musikal!" and "Mundong Entablado" each utilized medleys of those vocal cord-busting Aegis songs as act enders must speak only of the clout Myke Salomon's revitalizing orchestrations have acquired.

An even better example of the genre (to us, at least) is Culture Shock Production's "Sa Wakas," the middle-class love triangle told in reverse in the style of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," that employed songs by the now defunct band Sugarfree.

Hearing Villonco, Martin and Molina tear through "Prom," "Ikaw Pala" and "Bawat Daan" (an original song written specifically for the stage) was a ravishing reminder of the heart-tugging beauty those songs, rearranged by Ejay Yatco, possess.

Or how about Dalanghita Productions' "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," which this year became local theater's version of a summer blockbuster? It was a laugh trip from start to finish (and featured what is, in our book, the year's best musical theater performance so far--Molina's as the ambitious Viva). The last time a fantastical superhero musical hit this big was the Tanghalang Pilipino moneymaker "ZsaZsa Zaturnnah."


These days, historical work also remains a reliable source of inspiration. Ryan Cayabyab's take on the illustrious Jose Rizal novels are already in a league of their own, represented during the concert by Buencamino's haunting "Awit ni Isagani" from "El Filibusterismo," and Plantado-Tiongson's medley of "Awit ni Maria" and "Awit ni Sisa" from "Noli Me Tángere" ("The nerve!" she exclaimed at the end, a finger pointed at herself, to laughs and cheers).

In less than a year, we've also had two musicals on Apolinario Mabini: Floy Quintos' "Huling Lagda" (gloriously sung and passionately acted) and Tanghalang Pilipino's radically reimagined "Mabining Mandirigma," starring a subtly powerful Delphine Buencamino as a female Mabini.

There's even "The Mahabharata," which became "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" ("the year's best and most complex dancing," we wrote in our theater roundup last year, by DUP's talented corps of student-actors).

The movies, too, have had their slice of the stage. "Himala, The Musical" provided the medley that thunderously concluded "Mundong Entablado." Scored by Vincent de Jesus, it was last staged three years ago in concert form starring May Bayot, Isay Alvarez and Dulce (the last two the same powerhouse duo that anchored the 2013 revival of what is widely considered the mother of original Filipino musicals,  "Katy!").

Now, there's "Maxie the Musicale," an ebullient and entertaining, if unevenly written, take on Auraeus Solito's award-winning film; and yes, despite all that's been said of it, even Resorts World Manila's crowd-pleasing "Bituing Walang Ningning," adapted from the Sharon Cuneta-Cherie Gil classic.

More than anything, "Mundong Entablado" was a splendid reminder of where the original Filipino musical is right now: front and center of our stages. May it never leave that spot, and may it rain trophies on anyone who's doing his or her share to help it live on forever.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

PDI Review: 'South Pacific in Concert' by Resorts World Manila

What do Ballet Philippines' "Manhid," Upstart Productions' "Into the Woods," Resorts World's "Bituing Walang Ningning," and PETA's revival of "Noli and Fili Dekada Dos Mil" have in common? I shall speak no further.

Anyway, I'm back in the papers after almost two months (thank you, Internal Medicine!). My review of Resorts World's "South Pacific in Concert," which plays its second and final show tonight, is in today's Inquirer--here.

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An enchanting 'South Pacific in Concert,' thanks to an enchanting leading lady

She has dreamed a dream in time gone by as a prostitute in 19th-century France; climbed trees, scraped her knee and torn her dress as a freewheeling nun in Salzburg, Austria; and danced on the last night of the world with her American GI in wartime Saigon.

Now she's on an island in the Pacific, "a cockeyed optimist, immature and incurably green," and don't be surprised if you find yourself falling in love with this wonderful gal as the night wears on.

Such is the sweeping charm of Joanna Ampil, eminent star of the West End's "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables," who gives a performance of crystalline delicacy and unbridled buoyancy in Resorts World Manila's concert presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning "South Pacific," directed by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.

The musical, last staged in Manila in 1997 by Repertory Philippines, is a map of two love stories on a South Pacific island in the midst of the Second World War: that of Nellie Forbush, a self-confessed hick of a US Navy nurse, with the French plantation owner Emile de Becque; and that of Lt. Cable with the virginal islander Liat, who is disturbingly paired with the former by her scheming mother Bloody Mary.

Deeply humanizing

For two nights only (it plays its second and final show tonight), Ampil sings the part of Nellie. Yet, not for a minute does she make it seem as if she's only there to hit those notes. Employing the most convincing Southern accent we've heard in the theater of late, Ampil locates a deeply humanizing core in the character, and the result is a perceptively shaded portrait of a woman who can be schmaltzy lover, animated friend and prejudiced stranger all at the same time.

It is largely to Ampil's credit that this discreetly abridged staging of "South Pacific" feels as if it were the real thing. Her Nellie is all flesh and burbling blood, and the subtly lacerating work she puts into the first act's final scene, when Nellie discovers Emile's past relationship with a Polynesian woman and her bigoted side surfaces ("Colored," she exclaims), erases any sliver of doubt that somebody else could possibly do the role, should the producers decide to put on the real thing.

Ampil finds an able match in opera singer Jon Meer Vera Perez as Emile. Though he tends to scrunch his face too much to convey expression--unfortunately captured all too clearly by the tawdry video projections on both sides of the stage--Vera Perez is nonetheless a commanding presence, alluring and faintly vulnerable.

And boy, does the music soar with his voice; his "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" are two of the show's genuinely thrilling numbers.


Meanwhile, Ima Castro cuts a voluptuous, if slightly youthful, figure as Bloody Mary. But her performance makes you wonder at the possibilities that the likes of Sheila Francisco (who played the role to acclaim in London's National Theatre in the early 2000s, and can be heard in that production's cast recording) could have realized.

Castro is not at all inadequate; she's just underwhelming, lacking in heft and power, and while she exudes the character's air of lecherous mystery--a trait that could imaginably work to her advantage in a full-on staging--her remarkably high vocal range never really finds complete comfort in the score.

It's this same problem with low notes that hounded her otherwise busty portrayal of the beachside siren Saraghina--Bloody Mary's long-lost Italian relative, if you may--in Atlantis Productions' "Nine" three years ago.

It isn't any better for Mark Bautista as Lt. Cable. A pop star by nature, he was a dashing delight in Resorts World's "Bituing Walang Ningning," one of the few pleasures to be had in that otherwise deeply problematic production (but let's not get carried away now).

But here, where the score leans towards traditional Broadway and, occasionally, the near-operatic, Bautista is visibly uneasy with the sustained notes, the lack of wiggle room for riffs and bends, and sadly, yes, even his character's few high notes.

Sumptuous playing

That is unfortunate, because Rogers' music has never sounded richer, more luscious, more alive, than in the sumptuous playing by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Rodel Colmenar. A particularly ingenious moment during the overture hints at the dark underbelly of this deceptively sunny musical, when the lilting strains of "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" are contrasted with images of skyrocketing bombs and mushroom clouds on the LED screens onstage.

The ensemble, too, does fine vocal work (and curiously enough, they seem to have crossed over en masse from Dalanghita Productions' earlier smash musical "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady").

If there's any displeasure to be had in this concert, it is the sound. You'd think, given that this is only a two-night affair--and a concert at that, where the voices, the singing and the sound should be the focus--that they'd have somehow perfected all the acoustic elements.

Yet, opening night was marred by mic scratches and irritating reverb and infuriating audio feedback. Ampil even had to do her first scene with a handheld microphone, which came several inaudible lines too late. But this seasoned pro carried on as if nothing were wrong and never once struck a false note.

If this "South Pacific" makes for an enchanting evening in the too-capacious Newport Performing Arts Theater, it is, for the most part, thanks to its enchanting leading lady.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Lovely Month of July

Pretty bad last two days. We're in Internal Medicine now, and I received this patient who almost bled to death. End-stage kidney failure, and she developed uremia, a condition in which all the vile nitrogenous waste in your blood can't be excreted by your kidneys (because they're too damaged to function), so your body essentially goes nuts--one manifestation of which is developing ulcers that can and will bleed terribly. Woman's in the ICU now (we really thought she wouldn't last the night, which came as quite a heavenly surprise that I woke up the following morning without a text message declaring her demise). Don't get me wrong, though: I love Internal Medicine. It's one of my three choices for residency (along with psychiatry and opthalmology). There, now you know.

REAL-TIME UPDATE: We just coded/CPR-ed a patient. He died.

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Internship really is the best year. July for our block was a vacation, a time when I'd catch myself thinking, Hey, your mind ain't thinkin' nothin'. Just... zen. 

It started with us decorating our big-assed friend Justin's car.

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We went to Pinto Art Museum in Antipolo City, and the best thing about it is that it's right along the path of NAIA's departures and arrivals. I saw Eva Air's A330, for one.

This is Pia, being a pabebe.

Pinto is pretty big, and we realized you need an entire day to really appreciate everything (we only allotted three hours, and then we were hypoglycemic and were racing to Capitolyo and landed in Poco Deli). 

So much of Pinto seems inspired by Santorini, the most hackneyed place in Greece. 

My favorite exhibits:

"Quiapo Ibabaw," oil on canvas by Emmanuel Garibay, 1993.  

"Prusisyon," acrylic on canvas by Neil Manalo, 2011.

A taxidermy of something.

"The Hollow Man," wire and resin by Alab Pagarigan, 2013.

Pia completing Daniel dela Cruz's "Pilgrimage."

Church in a slanted world.

UST overrun by rats.

Carmela playing Joan of Arc/Disney's Esmeralda. 

I recreated a scene from John Logan's "Red"--the painter Mark Rothko, with his back to the audience, in front of a bloody red canvas. Unfortunately, few people got the reference when I posted this in Facebook. I was embarrassed on their behalf.

We had our graduation photo shoot. Can you believe it's been almost seven years?

The House of Yu in Café Chosun, Adriatico cor. Pedro Gil St., Malate, Manila.

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Carmela and I went to Avilon Zoo on a Thursday. (The psychiatrists had their convention, so the out-patient clinics got cancelled for that day.) Apart from us, there were only two other visitors in that 7.5-hectare slice of paradise, where sagely hornbills and hungry arapaimas greeted you at the entrance.


African leopard.

A fat, extremely cuddly black bear.

This sun bear was so smart, it managed to get itself on that ledge but couldn't figure out how to get down.

Blackbuck antelopes.


Two pairs of mating tortoises. I have a video--complete with sound effects!--that has the potential to go viral.

A huge-ass Burmese python.

A huge-ass king cobra.

Monocled spitting cobra.


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Then there was this Sunday when I went to the book sale of one Jason Moss, son of the eminent copywriter Arnold Moss. 15 titles for P300! After that, I went to the PETA Theater Center for the January-June deliberations of the Gawad Buhay! Awards. Yes, am now a member of the jury starting this year. So far, a terrific year for straight plays, and a lousy one for musicals.

Sister Vibered this photo of mother during her birthday.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

PDI Review: 'No Filter: Let's Talk About Me' by The Sandbox Collective

My review of "No Filter" is in today's Inquirer--here. To all the conyo kids out there, this is your show! Get off your ass and go see it! Book a couple of tickets and text a friend, "Hey, I'm watching No Filter, wanna come with?" It's not your usual house party chismisan, swear, and if you have a car, then it'll be so not hassle. Bro.

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Navel-gazing made eloquent and fascinating

(L-R): Mikael Daez, Saab Magalona-Bacarro, Jasmine Curtis-Smith, Cai Cortez, Khalil Kaimo.

"A play by millennials for millennials about millennials"is how The Sandbox Collective's latest production, "No Filter: Let's Talk About Me," fancies itself--a two-hour, 19-monologue original work.

The tagline is nothing if not fitting: This is such a self-absorbed piece of theater--and that's an excellent thing. So deep is its fascination with its subjects and its devotion to exploring every inch of their skins that the result drips with earnest sincerity.

Dishonesty is this show's idea of hell, and well-meaning self-deprecation its choice of banter.

But if the tagline sounds smugly all-encompassing, then the invisible sub-clause, the unspoken definition of "millennials," should be pointed out: In this show at least, it's limited to the subset of Metro Manila youth with (more than) enough money to spare for a night at the theater and perhaps a nice late dinner afterwards.


"No Filter" pokes fun at hangovers and the "Titas" of Manila, assumes the viewer's familiarity with Instagram and Tinder, and believes the struggle with free-cable internet back in the Paleolithic late '90s to have been a universal one.

What is spoken here is the language of the privileged--not exactly the exclusive-school born-and-raised, but those who, at one point in their young lives, might have had to make extremely difficult choices on matters such as travel, android phones, and heaven bless them, the perfect outfit.

If you identify with these people, then yes, this is the show for you. The "feels," as kids these days are wont to say, run aplenty, and so do the laughs and maybe even tears.

As for the rest of the common folk, fret not. It isn't everyday--heck, every year--that an original English-language Filipino work blazes our way with this eloquence and self-assurance.

What comprises half the appeal of "No Filter" is its script: a potpourri of "First World problems" taking the form of persuasive, vividly written confessions. (And take note, titos and titas, the phrase "First World problems" isn't meant to be taken literally.)

"When the thing you love most becomes your work, it becomes the hanging noose that might just kill you," goes one line, and you immediately wish every English-spouting private-school graduate could actually write like this.

"Love Me Tinder" humorously ascribes a disproportionate amount of intellectual discernment to the frivolity of the online dating/friendship-forming/soul-mate-searching app. "Moving Out" convinces us that moving to New York to fake one's death is the right thing to do.

Ideal companion

If not always powerful, these monologues simply ooze with passion. And they find an ideal companion in director Toff de Venecia's unembellished staging and the performances he has extracted from his cast, half of which are making their stage debuts.

The challenge for them, one realizes, is not "to act," to alter voice, movement and expression and assume a vastly different identity, but to "tweak" their personalities just a little, to ensure that they aren't just playing themselves, or their siblings, or their neighbors, but the writer--someone with probably the same privileged background as theirs, whose world intersects with theirs through countless similarities, but whose back story can be miles different.

It is a challenge that this cast, more often than not, handles with surprising ease and confidence.

And so we have fashion blogger Saab Magalona-Bacarro making quite the cogent, heartfelt case for the writer who faked her death in the Bronx; or Jasmine Curtis-Smith effortlessly shifting between contrasting emotions in "The Interview," about a writer who must deal with her own anxiety in front of her potential employer; or Cai Cortez charismatically saying that, yes, plus-sized women get to be choosy on Tinder, too.

That this production is already wrapping up its six-performance run this weekend only makes you wish that these women would consider going back onstage soon. (A limited extension is set for Aug. 7, 8PM; and Aug. 8, 7PM. --Ed.)

The big achievement of "No Filter," a show dedicated to the generation that purportedly loves to talk about itself, is to make self-absorption an appealing attribute. And if the characters talk in such a fascinatingly articulate manner, listening to them rant about their issues--ranging from the downright vapid ("When did dating become such a mindf*ck?") to the subliminally vital ("We're only trying to make do with the ruined world we inherited")--turns out to be far from a chore.

This review is by a millennial who "took one for the team." See the show to understand what that means.

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Contact numbers: 5856909 or 0917-8996680, or visit Sandbox's Facebook page.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Shame. Shame. Shame. *Rings Bell*

The UP Manila-PGH complex, as seen from University Tower.

It happened after 47 episodes: "Game of Thrones" finally affected me. 

Ned Stark's beheading? This was so Sean Bean. The Red Wedding? Underwhelming. (Plus I wasn't a fan of Catelyn Stark and so was actually quite glad the show had gotten rid of her.) Joffrey's poisoning? A sad occasion; he was my favorite character, as portrayed by Jack Gleeson, who stretched the limits of the ruthless, seemingly unstoppable kontrabida. The blinding of Oberyn Martell? Fun, fun, fun. 

But the army of the dead blitzkrieg-ing Hardhome? Now that was seriously creepy shit, like heart-racing serious creepy shit. I had to watch an episode of "Modern Family" right after to restore the balance of the universe. 

Then we had "The Dance of Dragons," where, in an upsettingly but hilariously question mark-ridden finale, Daenerys rides her dragon and leaves her court behind like, Shit, y'all saved my ass from those fanatics, now I'm flyin' away and y'all just gotta make do without me.

Lastly, "Mother's Mercy." Otherwise known as "Shame. Shame. Shame. *Rings bell* (repeat 1000x)." Hannah Waddingham (yes, I just found out it's her!) deserves a Guest Actress Emmy for playing that mean bitch of a nun. And then they repeatedly stabbed Jon Snow, whom I didn't really care for until he became Lord Commander, and it was how quickly and subtly it all happened that actually made it so powerful. "Game of Thrones" had so far been all about loud, violent, dramatic deaths, and then this. Ouch. Now the Wall is presumably left in the hands of traitors, ingrates and imbeciles. 

If anything, "Mother's Mercy" should be remembered for its many powerful images--Cersei's shorn, dirtied head; Jon Snow's lifeless(?) face against the white of snow and the red of his blood; Melisandre (who is always dressed to undress) looking, for the first time, like her bag of voodoo melted into shit. 

Me? I'm great. Having the time of our lives in our first vacation month of internship. Went to the Pinto Art Museum last Saturday. Been eating in different places. Watching lots of shows. Studying on the side. The works. 

Saturday, July 18, 2015

PDI Review: 'The Normal Heart' by Actor's Actors, Inc.'s The Necessary Theatre

Injustice is "The Normal Heart" running for only one stormy weekend. This is necessary theater, and good thing it's coming back in October. My review is in today's Inquirer--here. Some of you are probably wondering why it only came out today, two weeks after the show's premiere run ended. Well, Wednesday night is our deadline for the theater section, which comes out every Saturday. And as a rule, I don't review preview performances (unless it's a near-perfect show, which is rare). And also, I had my Virgin Labfest reviews for last week's issue, so taddah.

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The heart-shredding 'The Normal Heart'

The Necessary Theatre's production of Larry Kramer's "The Normal Heart" was a fearlessly mounted, thrillingly acted--and distressingly short-lived--show, playing only five performances from July 3-5 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza, Makati City.

Anyone with a heart, regardless of nationality, sexual preference or attention span, was bound to exit the theater bruised, or at the very least, mildly shaken. All those explosive confrontational scenes, the vicious truth-telling and incendiary diatribes, delivered with scalding conviction by a magnificent cast led by Bart Guingona, Topper Fabregas and Roselyn Perez, guaranteed just that.

Three decades since its inception, and thousands of miles away from its Manhattan setting, "The Normal Heart," Kramer's Pulitzer Prize-winner about the early days of the AIDS crisis in New York, has lost none of its blistering power.

It did, in fact, only acquire an added layer of urgency with its timely Manila debut, what with the distressing rise of HIV-AIDS incidence in the country in recent years.

Loud fight

"The Normal Heart," supposedly patterned after real-life events in Kramer's life, is anchored on the character of Ned Weeks, who takes it upon himself to start the big, loud fight against HIV-AIDS at a time when the rest of the world, including his gay friends and the rest of their sex-loving community, would rather be silent, if not blind.

It's a highly dramatic story, to put it bluntly, and in this production, there was really almost nothing to distract the audience's attention from the storytellers. On a bare stage, harshly lit in shades of white, with only the most essential props--tables, blocks for chairs, lots of paper, a carton of milk whose violent end was also met with shock--Guingona and his cast sublimely took it upon themselves to be as transparent and vulnerable as possible, to sensational effect.

But the beauty of this production, which Guingona also directed, was in its refusal to be a mere provocative polemical drama--although as that, it was quite compelling. Rather, this "Normal Heart" was more a character study, a meticulous dissection of several fictional individuals, in our view, by the tightest ensemble to have graced the stage so far this year.

In their hands, there were neither good guys nor villains--only real people, with motivations and principles and conflicts. And so when they fought, we watched, felt for them, even shed a tear or two for them, but hardly took sides. It was a plagued community in danger of collapsing onto itself, and we could actually understand why.

Most affecting

Kramer's language--at once vicious and playful, verbose and vivid, and most affecting when delivered in brutal spurts--requires a certain level of theatrical skill and verbal dexterity to pull off.

What's more, each character gets at least one extended dazzling moment in the spotlight, an opportunity to vent his rage and scream at the world. That these actors--Red Concepcion, Jef Flores, Nor Domingo and TJ Trinidad (in a superb, self-assured stage debut), playing gay men who couldn't be more different from each other--made it seem as if the words were flowing out of their brains and mouths for the first time, was also this production's triumph.

As Ned, Guingona showed both the relentless stridency and a hint of coldness intrinsic in the character. We actually understood that he would stop at nothing to fight for what he believes in, that he would wage the noble war even if that means breaking off with his brother (Richard Cunanan, excellent).

It was this blustering portrayal that made it quite clear why Ned would have the perfect partner-in-crime in Emma Brookner, the paraplegic doctor waging her own war against the disease, embodied with shattering authority by Perez.

Life partner

And Guingona's Ned also made the audience see why Felix, the closeted, sophisticated style journalist, would be the perfect life partner for his character. To say that Fabregas, in a gut-wrenching, refreshingly against-type performance that only the most heartless could have survived unmoved, was splendid as Felix would be an understatement. He and Perez were the best things of this "Normal Heart."

The most heartrending exchange in this production was actually almost an aside. Newly diagnosed with AIDS, Felix says, "I wish my mother were here," to which Brookner asks, "Where is she?"

"She's dead," he says, and the way Fabregas uttered those lines, as if the fact were a wisp of autobiographical detail to be shrugged off, sealed the case for casual, unexpected silences as potent tearjerkers.

Poignant silence is rather hard to come by in this play, however. And it's easy to call a show that ends with a treacly deathbed wedding, and that somehow designed every scene to end in a show-stopping monologue, manipulative.

But when it's done this well--an almost divine alignment of acting, scene work, design and direction--who, indeed, are we to resist the melancholic onslaught of tears?

Saturday, July 11, 2015

PDI Review: Virgin Labfest XI

My omnibus reviews of the 12 entries to this year's Virgin Labfest is in today's Inquirer--here. I will not lie: This was exhausting. But theater is love. And hashtag love wins. 

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Set A talkback.

'Sariwa' served two ways at the Virgin Labfest 11

"Sariwa" (fresh) is the theme of Virgin Labfest XI, and what has emerged at the tailend of this annual festival of "untried, unstaged, unpublished" plays, which concludes its three-week run tomorrow at the Cultural Center of the Philippines' Tanghalang Huseng Batute, is a kind of accidental dichotomy, the 12 entries of this year's roster having somehow found a way to tackle the central motif in two distinct ways.

There is the obvious: "sariwa" denoting freshness, a departure from the old and stale, which is the principal appeal of the Labfest's three best entries--Maynard Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi," Jerome Ignacio's "Kublihan," and Eljay Castro Deldoc's "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala"--and not only because each features at least one bright new talent at the helm.

'Dalawang Gabi'

Manansala's "Dalawang Gabi," directed by Jade Castro, should be essential study material for people who aspire to write comedy. By virtue of crisp, naturalistic dialogue, it transforms a platitudinous subject--the teacher-student relationship, and not the pedagogical kind--into something riotous and refreshing, dated Alma Moreno jokes and all.

Just as Debbie (Meann Espinosa) is about to profess her love to her former student Lester (Ibarra Guballa) in hilarious fashion that involves a gaudily decorated bulletin board, he tells her he's engaged.

Two years later, the tables are turned. Here, Espinosa and her usual first-rate comic chops ("Hindi ako bumabata, bumibigat lang," she deadpans), and Guballa, in a breakthrough performance that demonstrates through the slightest gestures and silence the brutality of heartbreak, achieve a fine brew of hilarity and poignancy.


A different sort of sadness, one that echoes the us-against-the-world complex hounding the kids of Frank Wedekind's "Spring Awakening" and Han Ong's "Middle Finger," courses through "Kublihan," directed by Guelan Luarca. As written by Ignacio, this Labfest's breakout playwright, it is almost Chekovian in the way the unspoken does most of the elegant storytelling.

Two friends meet at their secret spot--a bench overlooking Marikina Valley in a school not named Ateneo--for possibly the last time, and what starts out as seemingly harmless bantering eventually surprises the audience with stifled feelings and electric revelations.

In this elegiac examination of a friendship in transition, Abner Delina Jr. as the flighty, kinetic senior, and Joshua Tayco as the introverted freshman, provide two of the festival's most nuanced performances--quietly powerful and nearly devastating.

'Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala'

Stagecraft and imagination take center stage in "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala," Deldoc's adaptation of Dean Francis Alfar's "The Kite of Stars." It's about a young girl who goes on a lifetime's quest to build a kite that can send her to the stars.

And what fantasy! As directed by the visionary Ed Lacson Jr., this play is hands down the Labfest's most audaciously mounted production, a dazzling union of puppetry and shadow play, lights and shapes and images and sounds, bringing sparkling life to what would seem like an impossible transposition. And the comfort with the archaic Filipino of the script evinced by the vibrant young ensemble, led by the incandescent Krystle Valentino as Maria Isabella, is laudable.

'Huling Huli'

There is also a worthy contender for next year's Labfest's Revisited set in Herlyn Alegre's "Huling Huli," about women who engage in the desperate sex-for-fish trade.

On a desolate stage, punctuated by the constant presence of a fishing boat and frayed fishing nets, director Lawrence Fajardo once again demonstrates a flair for the operatic (evidenced in his award-winning film "Imbisibol," itself adapted from the eponymous Labfest play of two years ago). 

Peewee O'Hara, Mailes Kanapi and the luminous Martha Comia as a virginal young woman on the cusp of a ruthless sexual awakening play three generations of women and virtually sear the stage with their intense performances.

In the end, when the nets finally straddle even the fourth wall and doom these characters to entrapment in their way of life, you can only feel real pity for them.


In José T. Garcia's "Birtwal," "sariwa" is in the staging. As the dialogue occurs through text message, the lines are slyly flashed on overhead screens, while the actors (J-mee Katanyag and Ron Capinding, as online lovers meeting for the first time in the mall) engage in a carefully orchestrated wordless dance.

What could have been a dreary and dragging experiment happily finds a hook and captures our attention, thanks to director-choreographer Audie Gemora, who brings an actor's eye to the proceedings to produce an entrancing, altogether original experience. We know it could only end one of two ways, yet we still hang on to every second in anticipation of the inevitable.

'Uod, Butete at si Myrna'

And then, there were the plays that somehow took pleasure in their sweetly ironic treatment of "sariwa" by being about characters who are past their prime, longing for attention, unwanted, "un-fresh."

In Layeta Bucoy's "Uod, Butete at si Myrna," directed by George de Jesus III, the divine Angeli Bayani plays Myrna, a prostitute who was once her barangay's go-to whore, and her lover is the stutterer Uod (a convincing Ross Pesigan). "Konting atensyon, konting malasakit, konting drama" is what she desires, and the audience is served exactly that, in provocative, disgusting ways that make the theater reek of squalor: the couple unabashedly having sex; a grippingly detailed narration of a grisly child rape; and, in a wickedly humorous sequence, Bayani, her character now dead, getting trussed up in layers of cloth and plastic.

Unfortunately, a jarring shift in tone that occurs midway through the play reveals the narrative's shortcomings. Chief among our grievances: Characters don't exist in a vacuum as idealized caricatures unaffected by setting and context. In this play, the established scenery of a cramped railway hovel where secrets are impossible to keep, especially among people who have known each other for a lifetime, simply works against the story's supposedly shocking twist.

'Macho Dancer: A Musical'

Nicolas Pichay's "Macho Dancer: A Musical" is about five macho dancers in a washed-out club rehearsing for a final show to end all final shows. At some point during this inebriated musical, the guys start singing "Everything is beautiful at the Po-Mo" (referring to a fictional postmodern dance school), and immediately, Broadway enthusiasts are bound to think, "'A Chorus Line' Meets 'Follies.'"

While gifted with a taut ensemble led by Riki Benedicto and Paolo O'Hara, this entry, directed by Ralph Peña, is also overstuffed and strangely scatterbrained: too many storytelling devices; an almost pathological obsession with Hindu culture; and not enough time for character and scene development.

Perhaps the glow-in-the-dark elephant that appears at the end of this musical can help solve its rumbling identity crisis.

'Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA'

The estranged mother-daughter meet-up cliché is revisited in "Ang Nanay Kong Ex-NPA," an attempt to take us back to the degenerate Marcos regime.

Yet, as written by Mario Mendez and Genevieve Asenjo (who also wrote the novel from which this story is culled) and directed by Rody Vera, it probably would have worked better as a radio drama, or even a tell-all talk show hosted by Kris Aquino.

This exhausting production could have been a more transporting memory play with more capable actresses--one who could vividly shade the mother's meandering recollection of a fateful night during Martial Law, and another who could imbue the daughter with equal measures of tenderness and ferocity.

'An Expected'

Alvin Molina's "An Expected," directed by Roobak Valle, has "missed opportunity" written all over it in neon-pink calligraphy. What could have been an insightful two-hander about a young gay couple clashing over love and principles is reduced to shtick and whimsy with the addition of an imaginary fairy character. Serious conversation gets rudely interrupted by unnecessary comments, and too often, it's like the writer is stopping himself from going "that deep."

It is delightful to watch Gio Gahol perceptively tear through the part of the modern gay man; frustrating that Acey Aguilar, as Gahol's character's confused lover, gets all the didactic and moralizing lines; and annoying that the play expects everybody to accept unquestioningly the existence of the darned fairy.

'When Sam Met Jo'

Job Pagsibigan's sci-fi rom-com "When Sam Met Jo," directed by Ian Segarra, is another missed opportunity, and we don't even have to bring up the overabundance of nosebleed-inducing scientific jargon.

It has its laudable aspects--the time travel bits (the same scene farcically repeated four times). But it would have been better if Randy Villarama, injecting charm and savvy into the character of Sam, had a more adept scene partner (Chic San Agustin in this case) who wasn't as stiff and stilted. Someone who can deliver the line, "Ginawa mo akong renewable energy!", for instance, without making our eyes roll.

'Hintayan ng Langit'

"Hintayan ng Langit," Juan Miguel Severo's crowd-pleaser about aging ex-lovers who meet in the afterlife, directed by Raffy Tejada, proposes some novel ideas. There's purgatory as a transit sauna, for instance, and its flimsy walls as gossamer barriers between the living and the dead. Much of its floundering bulk, however, also unwittingly asks: Does "kilig" alone make a play?

Because truly, many pointless lines and weightless scenes seem to be here more to toy with the viewers' notions of romance than to meaningfully move the story along.

Watching ballet legends Edna Vida and Nonoy Froilan throw quips and witticisms at each other and dance a slow, tender number near the end may prove appealing to most. But a production that does not devote enough attention to character and scene work can only be, in the end, insincere and lightweight.

'Talo ang Walang Alam'

Finally, there's Joe Mari Sanchez's "Talo ang Walang Alam"--distressing proof that a selection committee can be given a pool of 156 newly written plays and still pick something wrong.

What was obviously meant to be yet another indictment of poverty and the ills of society comes across as desiccated, if earnestly made, poverty porn. Not only is it scientifically unsound (nobody gives birth that quick and clean!), it is also suffocating--too much dead air in a production that's already gloomy to begin with.

This production, directed by Issa Lopez, does not break new ground in either subject matter or writing (which is painfully obvious). The staged reading we saw of Ross Manicad's "The Wedding Planners," starring the wonderful Topper Fabregas and Marco Viaña as exes, and helmed by first-time director Jonathan Tadioan, was a way more stirring and emotionally authentic experience.

Monday, June 29, 2015

2015 in Movies, 40-48

Day 4 of 366 of internship comes to a close tonight; I just came from the most benign duty I've ever had in med school, and in OB-Gyne at that! The first week of this year's Virgin Labfest is done, and I will be repeating the entire crazy marathon this week. 

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"Clouds of Sils Maria."
(Juliette Binoche's Maria von Trapp moment.)

40. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her (2013, dir. Ned Benson)

The first thing you need to know about "Eleanor Rigby" is not that it has absolutely nothing to do with The Beatles (apart from a brief explanation on nomenclature by the eponymous character played by heir to Meryl Streep's throne Jessica Chastain), but that it has three versions. It was originally designed to be a film in two films, if that makes any sense; there is essentially one story, but the telling is through two perspectives--"Him" and "Her." Then, last year at Cannes, Harvey Weinstein, who possesses the uncanny ability to transform himself from gift of heaven to spawn of the devil in a split second, supposedly decided to force the creation of a hybrid--"Them"--that, among other reasons, it may attract more viewers with its more reasonable running time (true: "Them" clocks in at a "normal" two hours, while "Him" and "Her" each run for a little more than an hour and a half, which means the original version would have made for screenings that lasted more than three hours, and we can only imagine how not good that would have been on dear old Harvey's pocket). Thus, the one that received wide commercial release ("Them") and the one that went to specialty art houses ("Him" and "Her" as a back-to-back double feature). 

Having said all that, "Him" and "Her" viewed back to back is a beguilingly transporting experience, like having eyes to two vastly different brains and seeing a slice of time two different ways. It is easy to call "Eleanor Rigby" a gimmick, but few can approximate the purity of emotion and intricacy of character work on display here. Chastain and McAvoy put in their best, most complex and transparent work to date, even when the language can get absurdly un-naturalistic ("There is only one heart in this body. Have mercy on me," says McAvoy to Chastain). Be warned, however: These virtues are diminished, dissipated, lost in "Them"; the bits and pieces I gleaned from skimming through this far inferior product were enough to tell me that, so I decided not to endure it in its entirety at all.

41. Wild (dir. Jean-Marc Vallée)

I liked this movie. I enjoyed it, actually, and even laughed one too many times. Not an appropriate reaction, some might say, because "Wild" was obviously packaged as a search-for-your-lost-soul tearjerker Oscar bait--and that description is not wholly undeserved. I found Vallée's "Dallas Buyers Club" last year irritating; "Wild" left me moved and entertained. Reese Witherspoon, an actress I have come to associate with a certain feeling of annoyance for no specific reason, dazzles here. She carries the entire weight of this movie's ambition to be among the Academy's anointed ones with the barest and most understated of performances. No unwarranted showboating here, even when she's losing a toenail (my favorite part!) or losing a boot, then throwing away the other boot (my second favorite part!). And Laura Dern, as Reese's mother, is also good; alas, she should not have gotten that Supporting Actress nomination, because if we're going to start giving away nominations to throwaway parts, Viola Davis in "Eleanor Rigby" should have been first in line. 

42. Dazed and Confused (1993, dir. Richard Linklater)

The high school experience is truly a unifying one, whether you're a slightly overachieving kid dealing with math quizzes, impromptu speaking contests and the editorship of the campus publication in a Chinese school in Southeast Asia, or a young Brit lost in the timeworn halls of an elite prep school, or any of John Hughes' characters. In this Linklater, we are thrown right in the midst of the last-day-of-school hysteria. Matthew McConaughey and Ben Affleck both make appearances, and we go along for the drunken, drugged nightlong ride with these gang'o'rascals. Nothing "big" happens; nobody dies, gets hit by a car, gets sent to hospital, gets arrested, gets shot, gets raped. Linklater shows how it really is with these nights back then, and this astutely captured sense of normalcy is the gift of this movie.

43. Dear White People (dir. Justin Simien)

This is the funniest film I've seen about black culture--smart and literate as it is entertaining. Which got me thinking: Why indeed are we so fascinated by black culture? "They wanna be us," intones one character at a black-face party inspired by real events. I'm saying this as an Asian, and therefore non-partisan, homie.

44. Gone Girl (dir. David Fincher)

My third time to see this: I don't know that a more perfect movie was released last year. Say what you will about the man and his films, but there's no one quite like David Fincher these days. And since I have now seen all of this year's Oscar nominees, my should-have-been Best Picture roster, hewing as close as possible to the flavors of the season back then: the original five--"Boyhood," "Selma," "Birdman," "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "Whiplash"--plus my three other picks--"Gone Girl," "Nightcrawler," "Wild."

45. Love Is Strange (dir. Ira Sachs)

Alfred Molina and John Lithgow, surrounded by a gorgeous ensemble, in what to me was the year's best onscreen "love story," in a manner of speaking. Not to over-highlight the gay connection, but do find a way to also watch Andrew Haigh's "Weekend."

46. Clouds of Sils Maria (dir. Olivier Assayas)

In the future, I hope to run into Juliette Binoche in a foreign land, that I may totally fanboy over her. In a just world, "Clouds of Sils Maria" would be a serious Best Picture contender, and its two actresses up for awards. It makes "Birdman," a terrific film about an actor in existential crisis, look like a high school project. I would also like to take this opportunity to once again declare my love for Assayas' "Summer Hours."

47. '71 (dir. Yann Demange)

That sequence where Jack O'Connell's character accidentally gets separated from his platoon and races for his life in the maze of brick walls and narrow alleyways while being chased by deranged Irish Catholics got me thinking about what prods young men like him--the inexperienced, who must have previously thought of war as child's play, a game of guns and ammos in a field of broken dreams where they might fully unleash their suppressed masculinity--to join the army and risk their lives for "love of country." Aside from money, obviously. To pass the time?

48. Snowtown (2011, dir. Justin Kurzel)

"A masterpiece," the critics said, but all I could really think of while watching this was how disgusting and/or helpless and/or pathetic the characters were. Perhaps helplessness is an acquired taste among viewers; you see someone do nothing in the face of injustice, and you still sit there, complacent and comfortable, unfeeling to that nudge in the gut that seems to say, Hey, don't just fucking sit there, do something. Perhaps in real life, you must really be one to do nothing in the face of injustice. And that's why empowerment is a necessity.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

2015 in Movies, 34-39

"Inherent Vice."

("Hi. I'm Jade. Welcome to Chick Planet Massage. Please take note of today's Pussy Eater's Special, which is good all day till closing time."
"How much is it?"
"Well, not that $14.95 ain't a totally groovy price, but I'm actually trying to locate this guy who works for Mr. Wolfmann."
"Oh, does he eat pussy?"
"Fella named Glen Charlock?"
"Oh, sure, Glen. He comes in here. He eats pussy."

That girl Jade, squaring off against Joaquin "The Mumbler" Phoenix and nailing every line.)

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34. Pitch Perfect 2 (dir. Elizabeth Banks)

Funny, yes. But also, the entire time, I felt like I was at a screening of some encore performance of "Glee." Over the phone, Mother mightily proclaimed it's the kind of movie for her, so everybody's happy, and that's a good thing, I guess. I wish we saw more of the Guatemalan girl, though.

35. You're My Boss (dir. Antoinette Jadaone)

Coco Martin is miscast, but he works well enough with Toni Gonzaga, who is marvelous here, even though this all felt like her "turn" to try on Meryl Streep's Miranda Priestly shoes, because heaven knows just about every local actress must have a go at 'em. The shots of Batanes were enough to make my girl friends plan a future trip (which I doubt will ever push through), and kudos to the casting director for getting Pepe Herrera and Jerald Napoles (was there a buy-one-take-one Sunday special at the Rak of Aegis stage door we didn't know about?). Overall, it's funny, mostly thanks to Toni--plus, that part where Toni and her girls take a moment to photograph their dinner is simply priceless. However, the person who did the makeup? Hope to heaven this idiot never finds work in the field again, because thanks to "it," Coco has French kiss-ready red lips in just about every scene.

36. Jurassic World (dir. Colin Trevorrow)

Much has been said about its lack of a brain, but what I really disliked about it is the lack of blood. It's about dinosaurs with razor-sharp teeth, for goodness' sake, so why not give us the gore we deserve? And that final fight scene among the T-Rex, the raptor, and the what's-its-name hybrid? Yeah, like it wasn't at all obvious that Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard and company were following some senseless choreography as they ran around--and not away from--the dueling beasts.

37. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013, dir. Isao Takahata)

Sadness rarely takes on so many colors, some as fragile as bamboo paper, others as numbing and distant as the shadow of a tiny full moon. How fast we all grow, and how quickly children escape from the delicate grasps of their parents. Nothing in "Princess Kaguya" is told with a hint of falsehood, a whiff of shallow, pretentious artistry. The silences, the way the story takes its time to unfold, the gentle variations in shade and hue, the deliberate lightness of movement--all are vital in the telling of this subtly sorrowful tale. A difficult watch, but worth every step of the melancholy journey.

38. Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

It is with great pride that I announce to the world that I got through all 149 minutes of this latest Paul Thomas Anderson without fully understanding what it's all about. That's how it's supposed to be viewed, so I read somewhere, and I hope I've done the man proud.

39. Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa)

Watching this took me back to the recital of this year's graduating batch from the Philippine High School for the Arts, where they did a Filipino translation (by Guelan Luarca) of "Rashomon." What a delightful surprise of an afternoon that was, to see those high school kids acquit themselves so well with such complicated material, and handle the shifts in character and scene like seasoned pros. The director was JK Anicoche. 

Saturday, June 13, 2015

PDI Review: Idina Menzel - Live in Manila

My review of Idina Menzel's first ever concert in the Philippines (these ladies of Broadway never come!) is in today's Inquirer, and it contains an error. Shit. The online link here. Also, my first article in more than two months. Thanks a lot, life.

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Idina in Manila: The diva is also a rock star

As Broadway divas go, Idina Menzel is something of a curiosity. She has nowhere near as much credentials and Tony nominations under her belt as living theater royalty like Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters and Audra McDonald.

And no immaculate, crystalline instrument, either, that can hold a candle to the likes of her "Wicked" co-originator Kristin Chenoweth's or even Lea Salonga's (and we say that with not a hint of homecourt bias).

Yet, Menzel sold out the cavernous SM Mall of Asia Arena for her solo concert on June 7--a first for a foreign theater artist, we think. And the screaming and shrieking that punctuated the evening were more than enough proof that this woman is a superstar, perhaps even more famous these days than any of those aforementioned names.

Onstage, however, she was no diva. (Forget what you've heard about how she is at the stage door.) She was charming and funny, small and neighborly as she shared personal anecdotes in between her numbers, more than half the time barefoot.

Peculiar manner

Speaking of belting--she did deliver, weathered instrument and all. The goods, some of them sung a key lower, remained blustery, eardrum-blasting affairs: "Defying Gravity" and "The Wizard and I" from "Wicked"; "Always Starting Over" from her most recent Broadway show "If/Then"; "Don't Rain on My Parade" from "Funny Girl."

In short, it was an evening tailor-made for her rabid fans, which somehow made excusable her peculiar enunciation, the words and letters sliding and slithering round her mouth in strange serpentine fashion, so much so that her Ethel Merman ("There's No Business Like Show Business"/"Anything Goes"/"Everything's Coming Up Roses") and "Love for Sale"/"Roxanne" medleys became games of guess-the-lyrics.

In fact, the best moments were those that involved the audience. With "Take Me or Leave Me," the lesbian lovers' duet she originated in the musical "Rent," Menzel went down the stage to pick out three people to sing with her--by pure chance, former "The Voice of the Philippines" contender Timothy Pavino and two lucky girls who must have wished they never had to bathe again after that night.

Endearing affair

The song that made her one of 2014's it-girls, "Let It Go" from Disney's "Frozen," was an endearing, if somewhat bamboozling, number, as both Menzel and the audience struggled to keep up with a hastily improvised Filipino translation of the chorus ("Bumitaw/bumitaw/di ko na maitatago," it went, though overhead screen projections would surely have helped).

"No Day But Today," the song from "Rent" that has become the ultimate anthem of celebrating love and life, literally sparkled as the audience held up and waved their phones alit, the lyrics ("There's only us/only tonight/we must let go/to know what's right") seemingly taking on newer meaning.

Finally, thanking her "very sophisticated, very smart" audience, she sang the parts of Elphaba in "For Good" unamplified--the entire arena suspended in silence, that distinct voice perfectly comprehensible as it echoed in the stillness, the crowd joining her in a growing chorus to finish the song. One could not have felt a more entrancing moment.

Her rendition of Radiohead's "Creep" (because "some days, you look in the mirror, and you just don't like what you see"), when she totally let her hair down, even lying flat on the floor, seemed to show she no longer gave a care in the world.

Menzel showed us that, yes, this diva is also a divine rock star.

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ERRATUM: This article has been edited to reflect the following correction currently in the print and online versions. "Roxanne" is not by Cole Porter, but a 1978 song by the English band The Police. Apologies for the misattribution.