Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Fearless, Faithful Felines in Manila

"Cats," winner of seven Tony Awards in 1983, currently holds the position of third longest-running musical on Broadway and fourth longest of all time. The Asia-Pacific touring production presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions and the Really Useful Group runs from Jul. 23-Aug. 24 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo, and this writer saw the Aug. 10 and 14 8PM shows.


Invitation

The moment I saw the ad, my eyes were instantly drawn to the middle. It was the moonlight itself from the show’s biggest song made manifest in the form of letters.

"With Lea Salonga as Grizabella."

For someone too young to have caught "Miss Saigon," and too unfortunate to have missed "Cinderella," those five words were more than just an invitation. They were an order that spared no room for second thoughts: Watch "Cats," or wait for who-knows-how-long to see Kim-slash-Eponine-slash-Fantine grace local stages again.

That's probably what almost everyone else who bought a ticket to the currently running (until Aug. 22) Manila incarnation of the Tony Award-winning musical had in mind. A national treasure starring in a show that has conquered musical theater for almost thirty years: It was reason enough even for the most clueless and genuinely uninterested to head to the nearest Ticketworld outlet.

Beyond Lea and ‘Jellicles’

But after seeing the show, one realizes either of two things: That paying a few thousand pesos for a little more than ten minutes of Lea stage time is not worth it; or that, from the very first note of the overture, "Cats" is more than just Lea. Pity the person who has the former epiphany.

The plot, grabbing hold of which is certainly "no difficult matter," as the lyric goes, in the age of Wikipedia: A motley crew of felines gather in a humongous, perfectly scaled junkyard to celebrate the annual "Jellicle Ball." As the night progresses, each of the more ‘interesting’ cats tell its story, while everyone waits for the "Jellicle choice" to be made by the tribe leader. Throughout the night, a banished tribe member in a tattered fur coat makes several creepy appearances and sings "Memory" near the end to the audience’s delight. 

This musical is clearly about an entire tribe; the songs are about its individual members. If you come only for Lea, then you’re better off waiting for her next concert.

Now what on earth does "Jellicle" mean? And "Memory"--isn't that a Barbra Streisand song?  

Journey to the junkyard

I've been pretty much ready to tackle "Cats" as early as last Christmas, the soundtrack topping my music player's "Most Played" list. The 1998 version, I've seen several times. 

The moment I entered the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (or the CCP Main Theater, in simpler terms), my gaze immediately fixed on the stage. Truly, there's no judging the set design of "Cats" until one has seen it live; the film, bootlegs and pictures don't do it justice. Suddenly, one acquires an increased appreciation for the sewers, the distinctive car trunk, the gigantic tire and even the musical’s famous yellow moon on the background. The reflective stage floor, with the face of a tiger, furthers the air of mystery pervading the theater.

The lights dim. The overture begins. More mention of ‘Jellicles’ follow, as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wildly colored, ‘fearless, faithful felines’ enter and exit the stage from every possible orifice. A sewer and a car trunk cease to be just part of the cityscape. And the cats tell their stories, one by one, in song and dance.

Crème de la crème

It's true: International productions such as this "Cats" have it better. The sea of talent out there is just so vast, so it's only natural to expect the finest performances from what one can assume are the crème de la crème of theater in the region.

John O’Hara is an extremely flirtatious and over-confident Rum Tum Tugger (that last "about" at the end of his signature song just soars), though the acting can be a bit much in some parts. Michael John Hurney effortlessly transforms into three very different characters--Gus, Bustopher Jones and Growltiger--during the course of the show. Lisa-Marie Parker, whether as the operatic Griddlebone or  mellow-voiced Jellylorum, is a vocal delight. John Ellis and Shaun Rennie--both powerful tenors--summon Old Deuteronomy and Munkustrap, respectively, to thunderous life. Monique Chanel Pitsikas as Bombalurina and Stephanie Morrison as Demeter turn "Macavity" into one sexy, jazzy number. And Adrian Ricks as Mr. Mistoffelees has given dance a new meaning on the Manila stage.

Personally, the best musical moments are the opening "Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats," "The Jellicle Ball," "Gus, the Theater Cat," "Skimbleshanks" and "The Ad-dressing of Cats." 

‘Sorry, what was that again?’

There is, unfortunately, a catch. If you think the accents of J.K. Rowling’s teenage wizards are already hard enough to navigate onscreen, wait till the cast of this "Cats" sings for you.

Whether the songs came across as intelligible English or not may not have been a problem in tour countries such as South Korea and China. But it's different in Manila, where American imperialism continues to exert its heavy influence.

I think most will agree with me that comprehensibility is the foremost problem of this production. Nearly all of the cast, after all, are Australians.

For someone used to hearing English the stateside way, the song numbers can prove quite challenging. And sadly, even for someone who can, at the very least, sing along to most of the original cast recording, "Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer" and "The Naming of the Cats" simply sounded alien. A friend of mine remarked that the only song where she did not have to strain her ears to understand the lyrics was "Memory."

All the theater’s a stage

But there's so much more to this production than just its Down-Under twang: A train manually assembled onstage; cats and mice in a grand tap number; enchanting terpsichorean displays in succession; the lighting design; and in "Moments of Happiness," a verse translated in Tagalog by Pete Lacaba and sung (in an amusing accent) by Alyse Jai Davies as Silabub.  

Best of all, there is the audience interaction throughout the show. The cats make their entrance during the overture via the public doorways. Rum Tum Tugger gets off the stage midway through his song to dance with the orchestra section. Jellylorum encourages everyone to clap for Gus during his number. And during intermission, the cats actually mingle with the audience, stay in character, have their pictures taken and their ‘fur’ stroked.

Grizabella's glamour

Among all cats, one towers above the rest here in Manila. "With Lea Salonga as Grizabella," the ads would say.

Indeed, much can be said of the year's most talked-about casting decision in local musical theater. First of all, Lea juts out from the entire cast simply because hers is the most understandable English for Filipino audiences. There's nary an unintelligible syllable when she sings.

I personally have no problem with Lea sounding too youthful for the part, as many have claimed. She plays the character as someone left behind by time, and not entirely a disheveled old hag with that raspy vocal quality (like Elaine Paige's or Betty Buckley's).

The only fear I had coming to the show was whether she could nail her eleven o'clock number, given her less-than-enthralling rendition of "Memory" during the production launch late last year. Having seen her twice in the role, I can tell you that she belts a formidable "Memory," that climactic verse--"Touch me/it’s so easy to leave me/all alone with the memory/of my days in the sun"--quite the enthralling highlight. And the way she lets the subsequent line--"If you touch me/you’ll understand what happiness is"--linger in the end is entrancing. 

There's your youthful-sounding Grizabella. 

Andrew’s finest

People may say "Cats," like Grizabella, is stuck in the past, in the glorious 80s. So you either love it or abhor it. You either love it or abhor it. The uninitiated audience member may end up wondering: Where the freaking hell is the story? Skeptics are bound to question the definition of plot as a mere string of musical vignettes. Haters will simply find the show pointless.

Me? I think it's the best of ALW’s creations. The eclectic score is its strongest suit. The two nights I spent watching this production were as near the Heaviside Layer as I could conceivably get.

After the Aug. 10 8PM show at Artists' Entrance, CCP Main Theater.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Postscript:

Five days after I got the autograph of and a picture with theater’s first ever Kim, I found myself in the company of two other original "Miss Saigon" cast members.

Last Sunday, the KAISA Heritage Center held a film showing of "Tsinoy – Kaisa Ka!," a musical revue about Chinese-Filipinos staged in 2007, directed by Nestor Torre. Among the guests were Isay Alvarez and Robert Sena. Talking with the original Gigi van Tranh, even for just a while, sure made my day.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello! May I ask how long did you wait for Lea Salonga at the Artists' Entrance? I'm planning to have my program signed as well. :)

Vincen Gregorii said...

Thirty minutes, I think... pretty much worth the wait. And the Aussies come out first.

Anonymous said...

Ah thank you so much!
Nice review, by the way. :)

Vincen Gregorii said...

Thanks!