Thursday, December 1, 2011

Mirthful But Underwhelming Kiddie Fare

The two most lavish musical theatre productions to hit the Manila stage this year are drawing audiences by the thousands weekend after weekend without fail. Yet, amidst the theatrical glitz and glamour, it is that timeworn adage, for the millionth time proven right, that ends up stealing the spotlight: It is not what’s on the outside, but what's within, that truly counts.

The musicals – the stage adaptation of the classic Disney film "The Little Mermaid" and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Academy Award-winner "The Sound of Music" – should be crowd-pleasers right from the first orchestral note. But by the time the curtains of their currently running local stagings fall – at least, during the performances that we caught – it becomes frustratingly apparent that either show never truly achieved that theatrical ‘swell’, that sweeping and thrilling level of satisfaction that's but expected from such onstage extravagance.

The Sound of Music (Resorts World Manila)

Between the two, it is in Resorts World Manila’s much-publicized production of "The Sound of Music," directed by Roxanne Lapus and recently extended to May 27 next year, that that absent ‘swell’ manifests more distinctly – a rather ironic case for a musical best identified by the lyrics, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.”

Given the material’s global popularity, no doubt enhanced by that classic film featuring a vibrantly young Julie Andrews, one certainly has the right to expect a lot from this staging of the timeless, real-life story of Maria von Trapp of Salzburg, Austria, who suddenly found herself the governess of seven children and slowly falling in love for their stern naval captain of a father amidst the shadow of the Anschluss.

The November 12th evening show that we caught, however, could very well be summarized as such: Three legitimately soaring numbers including the finale in a relatively exciting Act I, followed by a surprisingly drab and unremarkable second act.

Those three numbers – the showstoppers, if we may – belong to arguably this production’s three biggest assets: Joanna Ampil as Maria (alternating with Cris Villonco), Pinky Marquez as the Mother Abbess (with Sheila Francisco as her alternate), and Pinky Amador as the Baroness Elsa Schraeder (played by Lynn Sherman in other days).

I Have Confidence.

Ampil, in only her second musical turn in Manila after racking up a-decade-and-a-half’s worth of West End credentials, is here unquestionably faultless as the love-struck novice. In "I Am Confidence," where Maria heads to meet the von Trapps for the first time, she puts on a show of incredible clarity and character, singing and playing the part on the revolving stage with just her prop bag and guitar and the gate set piece, in what can only be a theatrical solo of the highest order.

On the other hand, Marquez is no stranger to the musical, having essayed the same role in Repertory Philippines’s 2006 production and winning the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s annual theatre roundup’s Best Featured Actress in a Musical title. And no wonder: She sings a virtually incomparable "Climb Ev’ry Mountain," her lush vocals and superior technique resulting only to a rousing, ovation-worthy act ender.

A similar, if slightly less grandiose, sentiment can also be said of Amador, herself a member of the original "Miss Saigon" cast in London. At once scheming and desperate as the Baroness, she becomes especially clarion-voiced and delightfully riotous in "How Can Love Survive?," her lamentation on the wealthy’s supposed deprivation of romance.

But standout performances, in this case, can only do so much. If anything, this "Sound of Music" suffers most agonizingly from a lack of cohesion, gaping holes here and there in the overall direction that have melded over time and become too big to be kept hidden.

Suffering the most are the scenes with the children – "Do Re Mi," "So Long, Farewell," "The Lonely Goatherd" – which, at best, are finely rehearsed, if not perfunctory. Every ounce of verve that Ampil pours onto that stage is somehow unmet by expected vivacity from the children, whose vocal direction, it should be noted, has much room for improvement.

Ed Feist, as the Captain von Trapp, is physically and vocally stiff (outrageously enough, his character's solo "Edelweiss" is amiss, and that's a rather curious directorial choice). Some of the supporting cast have their share of shining moments (Miguel Faustmann’s sprightly Max, Debraliz Valasote’s derriere-swaying Frau Schimdt, a promising Rachel Coates as a delicate Leisl), but alas, have brief stage times.

Do Re Mi.

The standard for Broadway theatre is one main actor and an understudy to a role, or two alternating performers to a role at the most. But here in Resorts World, thirty thespians comprise the pool of actors for the thirteen main roles in the musical, such that each performance of the regular six-show week could very well feature a different permutation of the principal cast.

Could it be, then, that the varying work dynamics as well as inconstant performance schedules of the cast make it markedly tougher for the show to find a more stable footing?

Playing such a gargantuan theatre (the 1,800-seat Newport Performing Arts Theatre) makes it not entirely difficult to get swallowed up by space and spectator, after all. Even Mio Infante’s production design, as spectacular a fusion of concrete pieces and projected LED animation as can be, is spoiled by the intolerably slow transitions between scenes.

Perhaps it would have turned out better had we caught the production on another performance and with a different cast? The best word we could find for this "Sound of Music," as the cast started taking their bows, was ‘underwhelming’.

Disney's The Little Mermaid (Atlantis Productions)

Meanwhile, mermaids and sea animals have taken over the Meralco Theatre in "The Little Mermaid," Atlantis Productions’ year-ender. Directed by Bobby Garcia and Chari Arespacochaga, the musical is all sorts of Disney, from elaborately colourful costumes by Eric Pineda to Lex Marcos’s blue-inflected scenery and Jay Aranda’s lighting design.

Add to that Ceejay Javier's brassy musical direction (one of his best to date), and it's safe to conclude that, as far as technical matters are concerned, here is one unforgettable show.

Where, then, could this "Mermaid" possibly go wrong? A quick check on the story would perhaps do the trick: There is a mermaid named Ariel, daughter of the sea king Triton. In an act of rebellion and – whichever seems more fitting – ridiculous naivete/moot love at first sight, she makes a pact with the sea-witch Ursula and exchanges her tail and priceless voice for legs, all for the chance to be with a sailor prince that she’s only seen from afar the day before.

The first sign of a problem comes at the realization that the biggest star of the show is, in fact, Ursula.

L-R: Jaime Barcelon (Jetsam), Llamanzares, Felix Rivera (Flotsam).

Jinky Llamanzares has but two solo numbers – "I Want the Good Times Back" and the iconic "Poor, Unfortunate Souls." But in those two, she soars – nay, conquers - the stage with an inimitable presence and barrier-breaking voice, becoming a time bomb of evil and bitterness put to song.

Not, of course, that Ariel isn’t a starry presence herself. When the company announced the production’s leading players some months ago, we were one of the many who were quite suprised at the casting of Rachelle Ann Go, the label ‘mainstream pop singer’ somehow forever strapped to her belt.

Consider us now one of the pleasantly and genuinely surprised at how capable she is in tackling the role of the sea princess. Her singing is out of the question; "Part of Your World" was the first indubitable showstopper of the November 26 matinee that we caught.

But can she act the part and integrate the singing into it? Like the youthful teenager that Ariel is, Go is indeed a perfect fit for the role, all glimmering soprano and fresh energy. Consider hers a theatrical debut heralding the arrival of yet another promising talent.

In total contrast to Go’s unexpected triumph is a disappointing first taste of the stage for Erik Santos as Prince Eric. Given his equally buzz-worthy pop-sensation origins, Santos has no problem belting out "Her Voice" and "One Step Closer," his character’s solos.

But his diction needs much work, and his acting, his unreadiness to tackle a leading-man role is unequivocally made manifest by a malapropos awkwardness and rigidity onstage.

The two other major roles – Triton and Sebastian the red crustacean – also have a fragmented, uneven feel to them. Calvin Millado was a heartrending Kevin in "In the Heights," but the authority and emotions are severely downplayed, if not almost lost, in his portrayal of the ‘king of the sea’.

OJ Mariano, fresh from his two sensational theatrical turns this year (Collins in "Rent" and Vittorio Vidal/Daddy Brubeck in "Sweet Charity," both by 9 Works Theatrical), almost succeeds but inevitably fails to make a third one.

Instead, he gives us a Sebastian whose humour is oftentimes shrouded by a discomfiting, unplaceable accent. And his big numbers – the Oscar winner "Under the Sea" and "Kiss the Girl" – settle for just very good, never quite making it to outstanding.

Go in The World Above - the first of four times the spotlight's on her shining, shimmering voice.

In this "Mermaid," it is the minor and ensemble roles that end up grabbing the final third of the performers' limelight: the literally luminous eels Felix Rivera (Flotsam) and Jaime Barcelon (Jetsam), Raymond Concepcion’s dignified Grimsby, Ikey Canoy’s dimwitted Scuttle, and the female chorus – Bea Garcia of "Next to Normal," Caisa Borromeo of "Little Women," Jenny Jamora of "A Little Night Music," to drop a few names.

So many things need fixing to make this "Mermaid" a truly under-the-sea experience, from the weakly acted, incomprehensibly sung opening number ("Fathoms Below," by the male chorus) to the over-the-place and over-the-top second-act closer.

It cannot be denied that Garcia and Arespacochaga's 'okay' direction means missed opportunities and the failure to achieve the material's full potential. By curtain call, most of the audience – around half of which were children – were on their feet, cheering and hooting.

For the level of entertainment that this production provided, it deserved the ovation. But as a production, it's far from a runaway winner – or swimmer.

Fifteen minutes into the first act, the power went out and somehow managed to trip the show over, delaying it for another fifteen or so. That, in the theatre of the biggest electrical power distributor of the country. Was that a portent of things to come?

* * * * *

The Sound of Music runs until May 27, 2012 at Resorts World Manila. Visit for show dates and tickets (from P1,000 to P2,000). The Little Mermaid closes on December 11. Visit for details on show dates and tickets (from P500 to P1,500).

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