Saturday, August 24, 2013

PDI Review: 'Leading Lady' - Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo in Concert

In today's Philippine Daily Inquirer - here - my piece on Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo's first solo concert, "Leading Lady," at the CCP Little Theater last August 15. Now I haven't been to a lot of concerts, but this one's nirvana for the Broadway baby, more so for the Sondheim subspecies.

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Menchu the Magnificent in one stellar concert

The big revelation during Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s concert at the CCP Little Theater last Aug. 15 was that she is actually a woman of three faces.

The first is the face she wears in public – the fair-skinned, ageless mestiza beauty that must have, a long time ago, bathed in the fountain of youth. At 50, she could readily pass for someone a decade younger, even more.

Easy to see how she convincingly made a name for herself as the go-to ingénue of musical theater at the start of her career – a time, she said, when most of her roles required singing, dancing, and acting with a shawl, which she hilariously demonstrated in a medley that included “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” from “The Sound of Music.”

Bundle of energy

But, as one who has met her a few times can attest, Lauchengco-Yulo is no naïve, wide-eyed maiden; this woman is a bundle of energy. 

To see her deliver her opening monologue (“I love the theater!”) in a manner so careful and composed, as if not a single word from Luna Grino-Inocian’s script was to be skipped, was quite the curious sight then. She would grow more relaxed, adopt a more laidback stance, as the evening wore on, but that she clearly sounded rehearsed during the spoken parts could not be denied.

So what? This was, after all, only her first solo concert in her 35 year-long career.

That’s 35 years’ worth of acting credentials, which leads us to her second face: Menchu the performer, molded by nearly four decades under the beam of the spotlight.

“It came to a point when I realized I could not spend the rest of my life playing these ingénues,” she said. Too pretty, too white, lacking in experience – the opposition she initially encountered upon raising her interest to play the heavier, dramatic parts could not have been more inane. But she prevailed, obviously, paving the way for what she called the “plum roles.”

In back-to-back renditions of “I Dreamed a Dream” from “Les Miserables” and “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” from “Evita,” she adroitly illustrated her capabilities as a singing actress – the former sung with full-throated despair, the latter with an oratorical flair in tune with the song’s speech-like structure – producing the first of many spine-chillingly transcendent moments of the night.

Her ability to weave feeling into lyric made for a transporting experience, as if the packed audience were really watching her, for the first time, play Fantine in Repertory Philippines’ landmark production of “Les Mis” back in ’93, and two years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Eva Peron.

Exceptional showcase

She would follow those up with “As Long As He Needs Me” from “Oliver!” – the anguish of undying love turned palpably real – and Jason Robert Brown’s “Stars and the Moon,” an exceptional showcase of storytelling through song.  

This was Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo of the stage – that seemingly ethereal figure who, with one hand, refashions with her personal stylings the wickedly comical Mrs. Lovett in Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (Rep, 2009), and with another, bravely dives head first into the deepest emotional trenches of Diana Goodman in “Next to Normal” (Atlantis Productions, 2011).

It’s hard to believe that, back in 1977, she actually flunked her first audition (for Rep’s "The King and I"). 

“I didn’t even know what to do in an audition!” she said, relating one of the few anecdotes scattered throughout the hour-and-a-half concert directed by her brother, the balladeer Raymond Lauchengco (whose career, Menchu wittily claimed, is her doing – “I wrote his name down during the audition… and he got the part!”).

But it’s harder to imagine what would have happened had she not persevered and returned the next year, and won her first role (in 1978’s "Fiddler on the Roof"). That local theater would have left undiscovered the third face of Lauchengco-Yulo is a certainty.  

Most versatile voice

Introducing – or on second thought, that’s totally unnecessary – Menchu the singer.

One moment, she’s expertly scaling the treacherous, near-operatic notes of “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” from “Sweeney Todd”; the next, she’s powerfully belting out with masterful support “Meadowlark” from “The Baker’s Wife” (a number that could arguably stand on its own that night in sheer richness of musicality).

Off the books, here is the most accomplished and versatile singing voice in Philippine theater today.

And one, it should be noted, that comes with exceptionally perfect diction. This we witnessed when she took on “Not Getting Married Today” from Sondheim’s “Company.” The song, written as the ramblings of a bride getting cold feet on her wedding day, requires rapid-fire delivery, and Lauchengco-Yulo was more than up to task, every syllable rolling off her tongue with refreshing intelligibility.

Anyone who can successfully pull off a Sondheim song – sing the tricky melodies on pitch, tackle the notoriously tongue-twisting verses, fully dissect and flesh out the truths layered within the lyrics, and convey a plethora of emotions to the listener – deserves to be held in high esteem.

That she pulled off eight of his songs, from roles she has played (“Loving You” from “Passion,” “The Ladies Who Lunch” from “Company”) to ones that she’s bound to and should play in the near-future (“Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from “Gypsy,” “Send in the Clowns” from “A Little Night Music”), certainly spoke something of her caliber as a musical theater actress. 

Unexpected number

Coincidentally (or not), she also unexpectedly performed a number from the gargantuan money-making machine called “Wicked,” a day after the musical’s touring production had its press conference. It runs at the CCP Main Theater starting next year.

“Elphaba is a role that I would like to play someday. But I realized age is not a factor – because she is painted green!” And off she went belting “The Wizard and I” to the audience’s delight.

Maybe on her second concert (which, we demand, must happen), she can do “Defying Gravity.” No need for special effects, though, for on that stark stage, with only her exceedingly talented musical director and pianist Rony Fortich for company, the woman could make just about every song her own.

If anything, this evening, aptly titled “Leading Lady,” proved that when we speak of Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, we may well be referring to three distinct personas, but when we speak of the First Lady of Philippine Musical Theater, as audiences have come to call her nowadays, there can be no other.  

Sunday, August 18, 2013

X-rays Maddeningly Everywhere

The Year Level 5: ICC Year blog posts - stories and anecdotes, patient encounters and hospital drama, and the many colors of UP med school from the perspective of a third year. Here's the fourth entry, under our two-week rotation with the Department of Radiology.

At some point, you start to feel suffocated. The Department of Radiology is essentially a fortress within the hospital. It's built with thick walls to keep all the radiation in. There are safe zones, of course - lots of it; else, we'd be mutants by now (but if it's of the X-Men kind, or if I get telekinesis, I'd probably welcome it, but then you need the gene, so forget it). But the walls. And the blocks. And more walls.

Most of our time is spent in the dark.

There are plates every which way you turn! On the walls, the tables, the shelves, in boxes, lounge counters, the firm clutches of nervous patients. At some point, everything starts to look the same. An opacity on the lung gets multiplied a thousand times and transported to all succeeding Powerpoint slides. Your weary eyes lose the capacity to tell the difference, the ability to summon images where there can be none.

We check out "For-student-use" radiographs. Right photo: Cicatricial tuberculosis. The whites, especially in the upper lung field, represent scarring.

You realize radiology is, after all, the art of imagination. Look at that greyish shadow over there, right above the super faint outline of an intestine! Or, check out that fracture, and how small it is, you can barely see it! The only upside to this rotation that I can think of is the ubiquity of free time; it's starting to feel like a quasi-vacation.

We discuss radiographs!

P.S. I watched Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" two nights ago. Loved it. Now I have the perfect excuse to drop the surprisingly dull book - third time I'd be committing this crime.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

5 Years and 1 Month!

My blog turned five years and a month old last Thursday. That is to say, I totally forgot to celebrate last month. I read somewhere (I really did) that the average life span of a blog is six months. Beyond that, most blog owners tend to just abandon their sites, drop everything like nothing ever existed. That's somehow equivalent to orphaning a child. I can still remember that distinct pounding of excitement at the tips of my fingers as I set up this blog and typed my first entry. And now here we are, five years later, still running and very much alive.

From the balcony of a room at the Century Park Hotel: Lucio Tan, arriving via helicopter.

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Thursday night, we saw Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo in concert at the CCP, her first solo venture since her stage debut in 1978's Fiddler on the Roof. We decided to get the programme after the show, so it was fun guessing what the next song would be. 

What she expectedly sang: Meadowlark (The Baker's Wife), I Dreamed a Dream (Les Mis), Don't Cry for Me Argentina (Evita), Loving You (Passion). 

Photo taken during "Meadowlark."

What I correctly guessed she would sing: The Ladies Who Lunch (Company), Everything's Coming Up Roses (Gypsy).

What she surprisingly sang: Stars and the Moon (Songs for a New World), The Wizard and I (Wicked), Send in the Clowns (A Little Night Music). 

What she disappointingly did not sing, which means the concert must have a part two: Move On (Sunday in the Park with George), something from Into the Woods (preferably No One Is Alone or Children Will Listen, or in my fantasies, a mash-up of the two), Still Hurting (didn't she 'celebrate' her 25th year in the theater with The Last Five Years?), either of Norma Desmond's big songs in Sunset Boulevard (With One Look, As If We Never Said Goodbye).  

Nevertheless, this night was most definitely nirvana for any theater freak. But more of this in next Saturday's Inquirer.

Photo taken just before "The Ladies Who Lunch."

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On a drunken Tuesday night, in between shots of Jagermeister and tequila, with Christmas carols steaming vis-a-vis "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" and Spice Girls out of the blindedly abused karaoke set, Janet Lim-Napoles inadvertently entered the conversation. And I wondered how incredibly morally compromised, or sinfully forgetful, one has to be to have the gall to swindle one's own people. And what in heaven's name would one do with 28 houses? And the 192 congressmen allegedly involved with the filth of Napoles? It's times like this that really make you think about the afterlife.  

 The Intarmeds of UPCM 2016 Block 8, representing Philippine Science HS (Main), UP Rural HS (Los Banos), Iloilo Central Commercial HS, Palawan Hope Christian HS, and Muntinlupa Science HS.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Playing Teacher

Once a month, beginning last Thursday, we go to this public high school to teach a class of 4th year students. 

I sort of miss high school - its sweaty rowdiness and the uncaring noise, the snickers and snarky laughter that fill its halls. It's hard to believe there used to be a time when the highest stakes only amounted to exam papers and unnecessarily extravagant projects. 

For the first session, we taught these kids basic concepts on personal hygiene and first aid. Playing teacher, as I discovered, is a powerful way of luring out repressed nostalgia. Did I ever display the same lack of care towards my uniforms? I try to remember all our inside jokes and surprisingly come up with a hundred.

To quote Sondheim, from Merrily We Roll Along (hello, Repertory Philippines, you may want to do this one next year!):

Something is stirring, shifting ground. It's just begun.
Edges are blurring all around, and yesterday is done.
Feel the flow, hear what's happening.
We're what's happening.
Don't you know?
We're the movers and we're the shapers.
We're the names in tomorrow's papers.

Monday, August 12, 2013

PDI Review: 'Rock of Ages' by Atlantis Productions

My review - though I find reflection a more apt description - of Atlantis' "Rock of Ages" was in last Saturday's Inquirer - here. I was out all weekend with the mother and the sister, hence the delay.

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This 'Rock of Ages' earns its rockin' ovation

The New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, in a 2009 article titled "Want to Applaud a Broadway Show? Don't Get Up. Really," lamented the fact that standing ovations these days have become a "reflexive social gesture, like shaking hands with the host at the end of the party," instead of a genuine postshow manifestation of roaring approval. Plus, "a standing ovation," he continued, "seems to help confirm that the money wasn't wasted."

Enter Atlantis Productions' recently concluded "Rock of Ages," which played to sold-out houses almost every performance during its three-weekend rerun (a success it similarly enjoyed when it first played the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati City, last year). At curtain call, or even before the lights came up, the audience was quick to get on its feet, clapping and cheering and even dancing along to the band as the cast took their bows.

Forget Brantley; this clearly wasn't some random social reflex at work. With Atlantis' staging of the 2009 Tony-nominated musical, the standing ovation that capped off every performance couldn't have been a more rightful ending - no, make that the only rightful ending.

Vintage storyline

One may argue that “Rock of Ages,” which incorporates classic rock hits into an otherwise vintage storyline (book by Chris D’Arienzo), already had its ovations preordered. Despite a rather prosaic attempt to weave no less than five storylines into a timeworn saga of dreams and passion, it’s the music - borrowed, jukebox music, it must be emphasized – that’s the main attraction here.

That Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” is featured in the first act and REO Speedwagon’s “Can’t Fight This Feeling” in the next should be guarantee enough that even first-timers to the theater are bound to recognize the music and invariably sing along (but hopefully not). 

And, since “Glee,” how can anyone resist jumping up and down to an ending that, to some degree, theatricalizes Journey’s indefatigable “Don’t Stop Believing?”

Label that manipulative and you somehow have a point. And yet, you’re also beside the point. Because this is a show that clearly knows what it wants to achieve and is very overt in that intent; to reward it with an ovation would, in effect, only affirm that one had been all aboard the riotously fun journey from start to finish.

That journey revolves around the fall and rise of the Bourbon Room, a fictional club down the Sunset Strip in 1980s Los Angeles. There’s Dennis, the Room’s owner, and his assistant Lonny, who also functions as the show’s narrator, both struggling to fight off German father-and-son team Hertz and Franz from rendering the club inexistent. 

There’s Drew, Bourbon Room busboy, dreaming of one day making it "big," and Sherrie, typical small-town girl who’s come to the city to be an actress. There’s Stacee Jaxx, a sort-of rock legend, who’s back at the Bourbon for one final show with his band. Also, there’s a strip club owner, a corruptible mayor, and a city planner who becomes a rallyist, among others.


There are no tragic twists here. The closest the show got to an earthshaking character development would probably be Lonny and Dennis’ Act Two declaration of closeted love via “Can’t Fight This Feeling” (arguably the musical’s comic highlight). But the objective was simply to buckle up for the whimsical drive down the Sunset Boulevard of undeniable happy endings. To look for depth and intensity of the Stephen Sondheim kind would only be self-defeating.

Here, also, was a show that could occasionally be self-conscious - and make that trait work to its advantage. D’Arienzo’s book has characters breaking the fourth wall (meaning, they address their lines to the audience); at one point, Lonny reminds Drew that “he’s in ‘Rock of Ages’, the musical we’re doing.” But not only that; for a relatively paper-thin plot (despite the multitude of characters), D’Arienzo has actually written a show that flows as smooth as Skyway traffic on good days and does not scrimp on the laughs. 

Check out Franz fighting off accusations that he is homosexual with a cultural touch: “I’m not gay! I’m just… German!”  

Or we can also leave the material alone, resort to a more simplistic explanation, and say that audiences were driven to their feet at curtain call because “Rock of Ages” - suavely steered by director Chari Arespacochaga - surely qualifies as one of the most well-crafted productions Atlantis has delivered of late.

Here was a cast of topnotch vocalists - first-rate singer-actors, all of them - who were all fully aware of their main artistic mission, which was to create fun characters. Even wildcard Vina Morales was more than merely passable in her stage debut as Sherrie.

Flawless fusion

When we speak of Atlantis’ “Rock of Ages,” we remember Bibo Reyes, in the role of Franz, flamboyantly prancing onstage to “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” in body-hugging pink, and being lifted on the belly and legs by the female ensemble for a flying superhero-pose finish. 

We remember Aiza Seguerra playing nerdy as the city planner Regina, and then, moments later, returning onstage in fishnet stockings and black bikini in a cameo as a transgender stripper. We remember Nyoy Volante (Drew) and Rachel Alejandro (strip club proprietor Justice) displaying the rarely heard (onstage, at least) crunchier, edgier sides to their voices. 

We remember Mig Ayesa, Stacee Jaxx in the Broadway and US touring productions, reprising the role with hypnotic charm and the kind of sexed-up magnetism only a legitimate rock star could pull off.

But mostly, we remember - and should remember - Jett Pangan, in the role of the butt-shaking, jazz hands-loving Lonny, who randomly popped up in the middle of scenes to just jab at ongoing conflict or hasten the story’s progress. Pangan’s perfect combination of comic timing and spot-on delivery was testament to the fact that not only could he be ravishingly heartbreaking (remember 2011's "Next to Normal"), but also downright hilarious. His was, in fact, this "Rock of Ages'" funniest performance.

It's one of those rare shows built on the flawless fusion of performers and technicals (in particular, Lex Marcos’ appropriately dingy set design for the Bourbon Room, complemented by Joaquin Aranda’s lights to give that authentic rock concert feel).

So yes, the audience easily bestowed nightly standing ovations upon “Rock of Ages” - and rightly so. If not to assure themselves of their money’s worth, it could only be to genuinely cheer for a show that had given them every reason to do so - for having watched, enjoyed, even fallen in love with, one of the year’s finest pieces of theater.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Grandma Who Herds Cows

The Year Level 5: ICC Year blog posts - stories and anecdotes, patient encounters and hospital drama, and the many colors of UP med school from the perspective of a third year. Here's the third entry, under our two-week rotation with the family medicine section of the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

After last Thursday's dreary back-to-back departmental conferences, where our only perspicuous job as LU5 kids was to struggle to keep awake (thanks to the 7AM call time, which my botched-up body clock was in no sane way prepared for), we're finally in the OPD! (That stands for "out-patient department," which is hospital speak for "clinic.")

Yesterday's case was a septuagenarian grandma from Dipolog City who brought her daughter along as a Tagalog-to-Bisaya translator. P and I tried to go along with the Bisaya, even using some of the more familiar terms and phrases to encourage her to open up. At 70, she still herds the cows in their farm. Diagnosis? Community-acquired pneumonia, which our post-pharmacology mindsets welcomed with open arms... plus tuberculosis suspect.

Today's case was a middle-aged former piping supervisor in Saudi Arabia who, 7 years ago, was diagnosed through routine labs for OFW application with hepatitis B. The wife came along, and I swear there was a trace of tension in the air, especially since husband still smokes and drinks rather heavily against her wishes. Also, husband suffered (suffers?) from depression, and there, the tale took on a darker shade of grey.

We are given only one case per OPD session, where we do the history and physical exam, prepare our diagnosis and management, and then present our findings to the consultant-in-charge. The wait can be quite tedious and boring; yesterday, I told J to poke G just for the thrill of it, and he agreed!

But the highlight of yesterday was our public health lecture on urinary tract infections. Proof that this department has long succumbed to the frequently unjustifiable craziness afflicting the hospital: We did the lecture in the middle of a busy corridor in the OPD, with people coming and passing and going, and the PA system barking out names of patients every now and then.

Photos by Carmela Vistal.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Smokey Mountain Memories

The Year Level 5: ICC Year blog posts - stories and anecdotes, patient encounters and hospital drama, and the many colors of UP med school from the perspective of a third year. Here's the second entry, under our two-week rotation with the family medicine section of the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Our last day in Tondo was an entirely unexpected adventure. After seeing diabetic patients for around two hours in the morning (mine also had an inguinal hernia, which he allowed me to poke), we were reduced to a bunch of selfie-taking virginal doctors lounging around the empty health center. At one point, I started playing with the fish in the aquarium by tapping the glass to see them scram. Then, real-life couple T and P found a (not literally) lost child for a moment of pretend-family.

We had lunch at the nearby tapsilog place, and I found it delightful (like schadenfreude-delightful) to see all those high school kids hurrying home to study for first grading exams. Back at the Center, there was this cat that was longing to copulate with Jollibee junk. 

But the afternoon - oh, that epic afternoon! We had a scheduled ocular visit to Happy Land, one of the urban-poor barangays in the area. But - and this is where I got really confused - we ended up in the day care center, doing nothing more productive than trying out C's "unofficial" psychological test involving a room, a box in the room, flowers, and a horse. The women of Happy Land had a nutrition month celebration (a contest on who made the "healthiest" dish, I believe), but then someone suggested, "Would you like to go see Smokey Mountain instead?"

So that's what we did. We walked along Radial Road 10 (which ends southbound at Delpan Bridge), bordered by junk shops to the left and killer trucks to the right. We entered one of the pre-Smokey Mountain ultra-urban-poor communities, where we traversed a most challenging trail of damp garbage and who-knows-what. We skipped, we hopped, we gave our footwear mud baths. Someone mistook me (or was it J?) for a Japanese. Kids, some semi-naked, followed us ala "Look Down" in "Les Miserables." A lot of people there were walking barefoot on the soggy, muddy ground - and all we could think of was leptospirosis and parasites. We stopped at the entrance to the real Smokey Mountain, and went back.

Was it all so eye-opening? In a way. But it's true: You've never seen the poorest in the Philippines if you haven't been to places like this. The trip will silently tear your heart apart.      

Friday, August 2, 2013

Postscript to That Hong Kong Trip

Warning: This post is full of airplane photos.

It started with me brisk-walking back to our gate for boarding. We were to depart at 9:45; it was 9:25. I was coming from the tip of one of the arms of Chek Lap Kok's massive Y-shaped terminal. When I reached the gate, everyone had boarded except A, who was coming out of the nearby restroom. 

A said, "Have you seen E?" I've been looking for him."

"You mean he's not here?!"

"He said he was going to the duty free section." Which, I remembered, I had passed earlier. It's all the way back to where I'd come from. Shit.

One of the two male gate attendants approached us and asked for our boarding passes. Unlike in the Philippines, they take boarding very seriously here. So we told them we're still missing our companion.   

"Can you please call him? We have to close the gate."

A tried to intervene. "I'm calling him." And to me, A said, "He keeps putting his phone down!"

So I said, "He's not answering his phone, but he's coming already." And that's when the situation got intense. The more flamboyant of the two went berserk.

"Yes, we know he's coming, but where is he?! Where is he coming from? Causeway Bay?!" Young man, as it turned out, was quite familiar with sarcasm. "If we close the gate, are you leaving without him?"

So A and I entered the gate. But I waited around at the edge of the main jetway. They did final call, announcing E's name throughout the terminal. That's when I saw E arrive, fresh from a spectacular run after, he later confided, a rather unwelcome date with the toilet bowl.

1. Air China A321. Air India B777-200LR! Air New Zealand B777-200ER.

2. The north satellite terminal with Malaysia Airlines B737-800. 
3. Garuda Indonesia B737-800.

4. Two Dragonair A330-300s.

5. Indonesia and Malaysia, both B737s.

6. ANA B767-300ER with winglets with the departing Garuda B737. 
7. Air France B777-200ER.

8. Jetway artsy photo.

9. United B767-400ER!!!

10. Take-off! The cargo terminals in the distance.

11. Cathay Pacific A340-300.
12. Air New Zealand B777-200ER.
13. Jet Airways B777-300ER.
14. United in Star Alliance colors B777-200ER.

15. The cargo terminal complex with Emirates B777F visible.

16. United B737-800 for Guam. A320s in the background.

17. Aeroflot B777-300ER!!!

18. Pictures while taxiing: Air France B777 and China Airlines B747-400.
19. United B747-400 and Thai Airways A330-300.
20. KLM Cargo B747-400F.
21. The Air France, again, because you can never get enough of it.  

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