Saturday, November 30, 2013

PDI Review: 'Grease' by 9 Works Theatrical

My review of 9 Works Theatrical's "Grease" is in today's Inquirer - here. The production plays its final four shows at the Romulo Auditorium in RCBC Plaza, Makati City this weekend. Call (02)5867105 or 0917-554-5560.

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'Grease' is raunchy, gloriously sung--and quite exhausting

"Sexual tension blows up Makati theater." Now that's a rather crass way of summing up 9 Works Theatrical's "Grease," but really, inside the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, where this production plays until Dec. 1, the air feels so thick with testosterone and estrogen, it's almost suffocating.

Which is to say, this latest local staging of Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey's cult musical about teenage American troubles of the 1950s gets it right - part of it, at least.

When it premiered on Broadway in 1971, "Grease" was lauded for painting an astute image of hormone-infused raunchiness unseen in earlier attempts to capture the vulgar spirit of adolescence ("West Side Story" and Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" being the most notorious examples).

Such an image is ever present in this production directed by Robbie Guevara. The 10-person main cast playing the T-Birds and the Pink Ladies - two cliques of high school seniors in fictional Rydell High - completely embody the rashness and impulsivity of youth. It's as if they're one cigarette puff away from bedding each other or brawling with the audience.

Jarring effect

The problem is that this "Grease" also finds the need to be as loud as possible, oftentimes to jarring effect.

Make no mistake: The singing here is glorious. Just look to Vince Lim's rendition of "Those Magic Changes," where as guitarist superstar-wannabe Doody, he scales the number's ever-ascending chorus with remarkably smooth control. (And that's unsurprising: Lim is part of the illustrious Ryan Cayabyab singers.)

Other songs, however, become excuses for this production to jackhammer its put-on rough-and-tough appeal straight into our eardrums. The most atrocious example comes not even 15 minutes into the show.

In "Summer Nights," arguably the musical's most popular tune, we are first properly introduced to the lead characters, Danny Zuko and Sandy Dumbrowski, as they recall to their friends their short-lived summer romance. The lyrics' mushy nostalgia - "Summer lovin' happened so fast/ I met a girl crazy for me/ Met a boy, cute as can be" - presents the song as an occasion for both playfulness and subtlety.

This version is playful alright; it's also overblown, oversung, and devoid of nuance or personality, with a grand choral finish that threatens to bring down the ceiling.

Surprise show-stopper

Loudness, however, is absent in this production's treatment of the musical's book and its riotous comedy. One suspects it's because for much of the show's two-and-a-half-hour run, everyone's quite busy perfecting his or her New York accent - variations of it fly across the stage - that jokes simply fall flat or don't register with the audience at all.

Only Reb Atadero (Roger) seems completely at ease with the musical's humor, effortlessly belting out his butt-showing number, "Mooning," and affording this production its surprise showstopper.

The disheartening curiosities don't end there. For a musical that's supposedly high on hormones, the overall dancing, on a two-tiered set designed by the inventive Mio Infante to look like a jukebox, is marred by spots of sloppiness.

The Act I opener, the title song, which was first hear in the 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, looks like the work of an inexperienced bloke from high school instead of choreographers Arnold Trinidad and Mio Infante.

(The Act II opener, set on prom night, is less of a mess.)

The Act I ender, "We Go Together," now has a dance-along sequence, where the cast break the fourth wall to teach the moves to the audience in the hopes that braver ticket-holders would actually join them. But this just serves to wreck the momentum of an otherwise decent finish for the evening's first-half.

Added thrill

9 Works' "Grease" also has the added thrill of having different surprise guests play the role of Teen Angel for every performance. On Nov. 9's opening night, it's JM Rodriguez (Mark Cohen during the Philippine premiere of "Rent" 14 years ago).

In his four minutes onstage, Rodriguez manages to outshine every single number that precedes his. His booming voice and overflowing charisma literally set the song and the stage ablaze, at a time when the proceedings are in danger of dragging.

Moreover, Rodriguez's thoroughly corporeal cameo only highlights how one-dimensional some of the characters are, even as they sing in the title song, "There is a chance that we can make it so far/ We start believin' now that we can be who we are."

Flimsy characterization, sad to say, is what saddles this production's leads.

Gian Magdangal perfectly captures Danny's vulnerability, like a man-child who suddenly finds himself under the glare of the spotlight. His unfussy delivery of his Act II solo, "Sandy," aches with the longing of young love.

But Magdangal seems to forget that Danny is also the leader of the T-Birds, who identify as greasers with their rock-star getups and slicked-back hair. He can play in-love and in-trouble, but you wouldn't really listen to him come gang-war time.

Commanding presence

In this case, the leader of the T-Birds appears to be Kenickie, as portrayed by debuting performer Rafa Siguion-Reyna. Tall, stately, and chiseled, Siguion-Reyna casts a commanding presence, even if his "Greased Lightnin'" is not exactly spectacularly sung.

(The most spectacular portion of that number is the transformation of the titular car - which first appeared, by the way, in 9 Works' "They're Playing Our Song" earlier this year.)

Presence is what Frencheska Farr also lacks in her stage debut as Sandy. Her voice is truly a thing of beauty, her crystalline tones allowing for a luminous rendition of the Oscar-nominated "Hopelessly Devoted to You."

But as a character, her Sandy is a wisp of air, as lightweight as her innocence and as unreal as her notions of purity.

When, at the end of Act II, Sandy finally assumes the form of sex goddess in heavy makeup, Newton-John in the film sizzled with newfound sultriness. Here, we see right through Farr; her masquerade makes her look like a naive provincial girl playing dress-up.

Totally real

In fact, among the four principal characters - nay, the entire main cast - the only one who comes across as a totally real person is Betty Rizzo.

Jennifer Blair-Bianco, in her first musical role in the Philippines, is captivating as the sharp-tongued and sarcastic Rizzo. And when she sings "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," it is to inform us of the character's bitterness, as well as her many-layered philosophy, giving this production its singular shining moment of true humanity.

That number comes late in the second act, however, and by then, we've had enough of this production's lack of sophistication. Too often, 9 Works' "Grease" comes across as that jubilantly rambunctious kid, the one you know would be fun for company but would rather keep a safe distance from for fear of getting manhandled. 

Even the curtain call is not spared, as the cast blares on with a medley of the songs while taking their bows, ensuring that our ears are stuffed to the brim with the music.

There are worse things this production can do, but as it is, it's already quite exhausting.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

An Orthopedic Surgeon

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 eleventh entry, under our two-week combined rotation in the Section of Rheumatology, Department of Orthopedics, and Department of Rehabilitation Medicine.

The warning was that ROR, which stands for Rheuma-Ortho-Rehab, was going to be a toxic rotation. That's how we learned to be wary of people who are simply querulous - mareklamo. The rheumatology preceptorials were only toxic because a couple of the consultants required written outputs immediately following the session, but they really made learning fun and our brains tired-happy. The orthopedics preceptorials were the best - concise, straight to the point, except for Dr. C, whose droopy eyes and snail-paced speech could make anyone who looked at him sleepy. 

Typhoon Yolanda struck on the last day of our first week in ROR. This was us at the student lounge, waiting for word. How we got it - well, that's a tale in itself. 

Last Tuesday, we had the musculoskeletal system radiology Powerpoint exam. Studying for it was a piece of cake, because we were given all the materials (and the answers - just kidding or am I), because this was only 5% of our total grade. Below, our examiner testing out his new iPad Air. 

There was a lecture, but it was so forgettable, I can't remember what the topic was. Some people took the opportunity to show off their skills at camouflage-sleeping.

We also had a public health lecture - the indefatigable public health lecture, or the lay forum, as the classier consultants would have it. It was on back pain, and our blockmate Ivana demonstrated the Mackenzie exercises (look them up, but don't try them unless you're absolutely sure you have the best back in the world; go see a doctor).

On Thursday, we had our third session with the kids at M. Roxas High School. This time, we talked about communicable diseases - Dengue, leptospirosis, respiratory tract infections, food-borne diseases. Scenes from the high school, of congregations under thinking trees and floor-waxed verandas. 

The week ended with our faculty preceptor treating us to donuts and milk tea because that's what you call a healthy diet.

I think I wanna be an orthopedic surgeon. There, I've said it. But I've known since we dissected the arms and legs, the muscles and bones, during our first anatomy sessions two years ago, that that's a possible future. Future future tick tock tick tock.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

PDI Review: 'Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella' by Resorts World Manila

My review of Resorts World Manila's "Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella," based on the Oct. 19 7PM performance, is in today's Inquirer - here.  

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Mortal and reachable, but still a magical 'Cinderella'

"Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella," which opened Oct. 10 for a three-month run at the cavernous Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World Manila, is not exactly how people would picture a musical based on a children's fairy tale.

(That's how the show is properly billed, by the way, to distinguish it from the 1950 Disney animated film that's arguably the most recognizable version of the centuries-old fairy tale for current generations.)

More than 50 years of Disney movies have taught us that fairy tales thrive in fantastical extravagance, in the omnipresence of magic and elements far removed from reality. In "Cinderella's" case, extravagance is in the form of transformation - a ragged dress becoming an exquisite ball gown, or a pumpkin morphing into a royal carriage, as the Disney version so efficiently immortalized onscreen.

That's not to say that Resorts World's "Cinderella" lacks any of the requisite sparkle and glitter; it has 'em aplenty, actually. One need only consider how the insanely creative trinity of Andrew Botha, Aksana Sidarava, and lighting designer Shax Siasoco has made this production look like it's just finished bathing in the swankiest hues of the color wheel.

Botha lays the foundation with his gargantuan sets - mainly, a staircase and two rotating pieces that are on one side, facades in a town square, and on the other, the interiors of a house. But his flair for design is most evident in the details - in the curves, curls, and twirls that dominate the sets to give off that fancy, first-class feel. He also employs the theater's LED screen to project sweeping backgrounds that virtually deepen and extend the stage.

Sidarava's costumes are just as opulent, from the pumped-up gowns and humongous wigs to the elaborately dressed lowly villagers, their seeming sartorial individuality a product of intricate mix-and-match. And the technique involved in the pivotal transformation of Cinderella's tattered clothes to a glamorous gown succeeds in providing a thrillingly marvelous five seconds (no spoilers here).

Such opulence also extends to Rodel Colmenar's musical direction. Under his baton, the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra has brought to lush and succulent life the melodious, if not particularly striking score by Richard Rogers.

This "Cinderella," then, is quite the overachiever as far as the technical aspects go. But that's about the tangible magic coursing through this production.

Thank goodness, director Michael Williams drew the line there. After all, how many times must audiences be told this tale as old as time itself to be convinced that "Cinderella" can wave its wand and cast a spell as good as any?

The book by Oscar Hammerstein II generally bears the same plot as the Disney film. There is the titular orphan girl and her abusive stepfamily, the fairy godmother, the carriage and the gown, the ball at the palace, the glass slipper, the happily ever after. Put in the musical numbers, the pomp and grandeur, and the show is set to go.

Compact, potent
But under Williams' watch, this "Cinderella" is as compact as possible. Moving the story forward takes precedence; all other concerns - the theatrics, the songs, the dance numbers (choreography by James Laforteza) - must bend to the story.

That, without sacrificing nuance and artistry. For instance, the scene where the Prince searches for the foot that fits the slipper is now an amusing pantomime featuring the ladies of the kingdom and the steward Lionel (Red Concepcion, hilariously scene-stealing all throughout).

The more potent magic of "Cinderella," however, is the result of how William steered his cast to attack their characters. This production's refreshing appeal stems from the full-blooded characterizations; for such a grandiose fairy tale, the characters are surprisingly earth-bound, "un-magical," real.

Thus, we have the likes of Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo's fairy godmother, a motherly figure whose parenting style is anchored on tough love. (Though, it must be said, Lauchengco-Yulo looks more like the queen of the sea in her cape of purple scallop shell, and her talents are atrociously underused in this three-scene role.)

Cinderella's stepfamily, too, has undergone a personality makeover. Pinky Marquez (who plays the fairy godmother in certain performances) becomes a stepmother who is not an all-out evil hag, but rather, a jealous and desperate woman long past her prime (Sweet Plantado-Tiongson alternates in the role).

The same sentiment can be extended to the stepsisters. As portrayed by Giannina Ocampo and Maronne Cruz, they are no longer just spoiled brats; they have become pathetic, unsophisticated girls who are actually more pitiful than despicable. And their duet, "Stepsisters' Lament," is no longer comedy; it is now a confession of envy by way of song.

Even the royals have not been spared the overhaul. Miguel Faustmann and Sheila Francisco are utterly convincing in portraying the monarchy as just another bickering couple with mundane problems. Francisco's Queen, in particular, is that mother whose desire to see her son find a wife compels her to do outrageous things like dreaming up a kingdom-wide ball behind his back.

Top billing

But above all, this "Cinderella" owes much of its success to its leads - Julia Abueva in the title role and Fred Lo as the Prince. (Pop artists Karylle Tatlonghari and Christian Bautista receive top billing for those parts.)

Abueva, all of 17 years old, is simply enchanting. Her Cinderella is the embodiment of youth's fragile innocence, a meek and obedient creature (in homage to the Chinese version of the tale) at once brimming with dreams and crushed hopes.

In the mold of former Cinderellas such as Julie Andrews and Lea Salonga, Abueva, too, sings most beautifully, delivering her songs with precise diction and emotional clarity that further underscore the promise of a luminous future onstage.

In fact, this production's most magical moment, should there be only one, belongs to Abueva: Early in Act I, under the shadow of the colossal sets, she sings "In My Own Little Corner" and weaves a pristine union of poetry and melody, the imagery of the song - Norwegian princess, milkmaid, heiress, huntress on safari - brought to vibrant life.

Meanwhile, Lo initially plays his role as reluctant heir to the throne, a boy-prince hungry for adventure and life beyond the castle. But it is his visible transformation from boy to prince that is most remarkable.

Together, Abueva and Lo also make this "Cinderella" an inadvertent tale of young love. Truth is, they fit so well into their roles, work so well as a pair, and are totally convincing as a couple, that it's hard to imagine how, say, Abueva paired with Bautista would have worked out.

Flesh and blood
"Cinderella," by the way, is Resorts World's third consecutive Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. But the material itself isn't exactly considered one of the prodigious duo's finest. What this production has achieved is a triumph well beyond script and sheet music. It's the magic of the fairy tale made mortal and reachable.

In a world where "impossible things are happening everyday," the characters are very much flesh and blood, and so they make it easier for the audience to suspend disbelief. It's not how fairy tales usually work; most are too engrossed in their own fancies to even be involving.

This "Cinderella" tries to break the mold, and the results are ravishing.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: NOVEMBER 18, 2013. The 4th paragraph of this review incorrectly cited John Batalla as the production's lighting designer. That position is held by SHAX SIASOCO. 

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Plus, a bonus blurry photo (thanks to my shaky hand) with Julia Abueva! In Singapore, she most recently played Wendla in "Spring Awakening" and Natalie in "Next to Normal." Hello Atlantis Productions, if ever you decide to revive "Next to Normal." Also, it's about time for "Into the Woods" again, and it would be awesome if she plays Cinderella (she did Little Red Riding Hood for New Voice Company in 2007). Ugh, my fantasies.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Butuan IV: Work and the City

We came to Butuan to (cough) work - to, uh, generate observations and derive conclusions on the local health system based on visits to two hospitals. "We learned a lot and became better doctors" is what I would essentially write in a reflection paper. "Management means vacation" is what I would tell the curious. 

Since one of our blockmates' dad is a god of the Philippine Coast Guard, and since we arrived in Mindanao in the thick of the meaningless Zamboanga crisis, we were personally escorted by members of the Coast Guard from the airport to the city. 

We had lunch at this place across the City Hall. It afforded J some alone time. Late Saturday afternoon, the Catholics heard mass at the church beside Urios University.

Monday, we did field work at the Butuan City Medical Center, a fine example of a disconnect between name and reality because the hospital is hardly located "in the city." I like its triangular facade and the fact that it's surrounded by green on all sides, plus mountains in the distance.

Across the road is the quiet provincial life. Sari-sari stores stand side by side with small-time pharmacies and residences. The contrast - a bustling hospital living in this farm-like area - is picturesque.

The road to the Butuan City Medical Center:

Late Monday afternoon, the block discovered the best way to kill the time while waiting for our ride. Plus, some of the Manila girls wanted pictures with the sunset.

For a moment, it was 1943 outside Warsaw, and our jeepney was almost ransacked by Grammar Nazis. 

The next day, we went to Manuel J. Santos Hospital, which is owned by T's family. The afternoon was more interesting, though: We visited birthing clinics!

These are zoomed-in iPhone views on the road to one of the clinics:

A crazy truck, tricycle rides, and city streets.

This is Pinkadoo, the landmark for where we stayed (which shall be the topic of the next Butuan post).

On our last day, we had lunch at Aling Cora's. If you're from Manila, you'd be quite impressed with the cooking. But nothing beats Iloilo seafood, of course. 

A last glimpse of the city on a quiet Thursday afternoon, outside a pasalubong shop, three, four hours before our flight back to the Metro.

PREVIOUS: Butuan III: Touristy Things
NEXT: Butuan V: The House

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Butuan III: Touristy Things

When it comes to touristy things, Butuan doesn't have much to offer, especially for people from outside Manila. There are beaches, but Iloilo's coastline is virtually one long beach. There's a historic site or two, but aren't all cities similarly equipped? If you're looking for a unique experience akin to Palawan's famed underground river, then you're better off going to Palawan.

What Butuan is, however - like many provincial cities, and here I'm only making a personal generalization - is a place for relaxation, not so much for tiring the self from an entire day's sightseeing as it is for reuniting with (or for the imperialist people of Manila, meeting for the first time) fresh air, clean waters, clearer skies.  

It will be two months next week since Butuan. The photo below essentially sums up our Sunday.

Saturday night, there was a debate over where to spend the following day, or rather, which beach. Someone suggested Siargao Island, and I was totally game for it, but we all knew it was obviously impossible to enjoy the fabled place in just half a day. After many other options, we settled for the nearest one to the city, and the place is actually so unremarkable that I can't even recall its name.

Sunday morning, we stopped at a market to buy lunch. The girls snacked on cassava balls.

This is the beach. There is a shadow of a reindeer on the loose. Beyond the perimeter is a rocky wilderness.

The Frisbee lovers started a short-lived game. The sand wasn't good, I reckon.

The girls practiced their wife skills by preparing the lunch we had bought. Grilled pork, humongous grilled fish that we savagely ravaged, etc.

Creative shot: Man and leaves.

Creative shot: Lamps.

Creative shot: Chair and Frisbee in flight.

That's Justin (left) and Teddy. Creative shot: Teddy pointing.

Creative shot: Chair by the sea, for the thinking man.

We ended up playing the card game "Killer Killer" for the rest of our stay. Yes, card games by the beach, as city kids are wont to do. 

This is the roof of the nipa-cabana that we rented. 

On the way out, there were doves.

Wednesday, we visited some of the birthing homes in the city. Butuan has 24 of them, if I'm not mistaken, and that's a curiously high statistic for a relatively modernized city. The birthing homes that we'd chosen didn't have patients though, so our host Dr. (I forget her name) gave us a mini-driving tour instead.

We did the iconic Macapagal Bridge (literally - we had jump shots while trucks and buses passed by). The bridge straddles the Agusan River, meaning my wish to see said river was fulfilled. Crocodiles supposedly inhabit its waters. 

Here's a country road and a carabao - my favorite farm animal. My mother and aunts used to - still do, I think - confuse the carabao with the cow.

On our last day, we finally visited - as we had initially promised we would - the Balangay Shrine. History classes in grade school all go gaga at the mention of "balangay," where our beloved "barangay" supposedly came from. Ancient Southeast Asians got to the Philippines by way of these huge wooden boats whose structural properties I'm not exactly an expert of. 

Butuan is the heartland of the balangay. To date, there are at least seven excavation sites in the city's tricky river delta system (see photo of map below), but the one we went to is the most accessible to tourists. 

This is how the museum works: One small building built like a prototype provincial house. A giant lawn with a flagpole greeting the arrivals. The building is open air. A balangay in a glass display is its only notable occupant. The tourist guide doubles as the resident archeologist or something. 

That's the rudder of said balangay, in two views.

Note that this balangay site was once a peaceful residential area. Now, the backyard houses balangay-sized excavated ground. When it rains, there are balangay-sized ponds. Imagine a saltwater crocodile making its way to the pond.  

More photos of said ground. Third photo gives us a glimpse of the neighborhood.

Here are the other occupants of the Shrine: wooden coffins, or maybe just huge pieces of wood; skulls; ancient Chinese wares. 

Mr. Tourist Guide/Archeologist has his dingy, archeology-looking and -smelling office in the compound. He thrilled our girls when he let them hold some of the porcelain. He also let me be an "instant archeologist" (his words). (He asked if I wanted to be an "instant archeologist," and I, being one of several hungover people in the group, didn't actually understand him at first.) 

We couldn't leave without a requisite photo for each anatomy table. One of ours - G, who's now a blondie - was unable to come with us due to a severe bout of gastroenteritis at 4AM that morning secondary to matters that will not be discussed in detail.

Here's a final shot of the touristy affairs: Vince and a Frisbee by the sea.

PREVIOUS: Butuan II: Geography from the Sky
NEXT: Butuan IV: Work and the City