For the past two-and-a-half years, I've been heading off to the theater for as long as time and interest would permit. So far, the variety as far as quality is concerned has been interesting, but I've been lucky enough not to have caught a show that I ended up particularly loathing. Not yet.
The first one I saw was Atlantis Production's Spring Awakening, one of my all-time favorites. As it was officially my first time to experience professional theater, I could not have possibly passed fair judgement upon the production. I do vividly remember Joaquin Valdes' stellar turn as troubled leading-man Melchior Gabor, and Bea Garcia standing out from the rest of the supporting cast as a tragically sweet-voiced Ilse.
Valdes and Kelly Lati (Wendla)
There were the 'okay' productions such as The Wedding Singer (9 Works Theatrical), which showcased a brilliant Gian Magdangal (Robbie) paired to a lackluster Iya Villania (Julia); or this year's Aida (Atlantis), whose titular character (a comebacking Ima Castro in fine form), was overshadowed by Rachel Alejandro's scene-stealing Amneris.
Then, there were the ones that I'd say were 'good' - straddling that imaginary patch between 'soaring' and 'okay' - such as the much-improved third run of Rent (9 Works), its only semblance to its less exciting original run being Carla Guevara-Laforteza's explosive Maureen Johnson.
And then, we have the really good ones - productions that I'd be quick to say can give their Broadway counterparts a run for their money anytime: Little Women (Repertory Philippines), In the Heights (Atlantis), A Little Night Music (also by Atlantis). What do they have in common? First, Tony-worthy performances from their leading players, to borrow from Pippin: Caisa Borromeo as Jo March, Nyoy Volante as Usnavi, and Dawn Zulueta as Desiree Armfeldt. Second, one or two uneven performances that stained an otherwise perfect ensemble - I'm not naming them here.
Left: Zulueta sang a shattering Send in the Clowns.
Right: Borromeo (L) and Cara Barredo as Beth March singing Some Things Are Meant to Be (as of today, one of only four moments in theater that left me teary-eyed).
And finally, we have the ones that are so good, they should win a Tony for Best International Production of a Musical or something. There are two of them. The first one is Avenue Q (Atlantis). I'd say I made it to Manila just in time to catch its fifth and supposedly final run. Directed by Bobby Garcia, this is one production that will remain close to my theatrical heart because it was the first - and for a year - the only time that I exited the theater so impressed, I was at a loss for words. Here, I became a believer of Felix Rivera and Rachel Alejandro. A sixth run should be in order, Bobby.
The second one, I just saw for the third time last night - Atlantis' Next to Normal. I saw it on its opening and closing weekends last March, and now on the opening night of its rerun. In my opinion - and I am fairly certain I am not alone in saying this - this is one musical production that will remain unmatched in its electrifying brilliance for quite some time, if it hasn't already cast a shadow over past productions of a similar calibre.
Here, my friends, is a cast that knows no bounds and no peers, one that's as fine as anyone's ever seen anywhere. Here is Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo poised to take home the Philippine Daily Inquirer's Best Actress in a Musical award for the year, and Jett Pangan and Garcia giving the toughest competitions to their fellow would-be nominees. Here, also, is Rivera in the creepiest performance of the year for a Broadway musical.
The Goodman trifecta (L-R: Yulo, Garcia, Pangan) in Better Than Before, a musical highlight of the show.
Here is a production with so much pathos, it leaves more than half the theater in tears by the end. Here is a production that has so much soul and so much genuine emotion, you can't help getting swept away by the current and going along for this one hell of a theatrical ride. Here is something one should choose to see if he or she could choose only one from all the shows that have been and will be shown in Manila. Here is Next to Normal, which, in sheer quality, is next to basically nothing else.
So I was doing quite well (compared to the rest of the audience) - until this: I Am the One (Reprise), the most heart-wrenching scene in the musical.