Saturday, September 27, 2014

PDI Review: 'Never Felt Better' - Michael Williams in Concert

My review of Michael Williams' solo concert, "Never Felt Better," is in today's Inquirer - here. "Never Felt Better" was the second night of this year's "Triple Threats: The Leading Men and Women of Philippine Musical Theater" at the CCP Little Theater. Bituin Escalante will conclude the concert series on Oct. 9. 

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Michael Williams: Life is a cabaret

In the event Michael Williams decides to retire from acting, he can open a jazz club and take to the stage every night, seven days a week, singing Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rogers, telling anecdotes from his colorful career, and engaging his male staff in flirtatious banter.

He'd be very, very good at it, to judge from his Triple Threats concert at the CCP Little Theater, dubbed "Never Felt Better," last Sept. 18.

Those who made it to the show in spite of the sudden deluge and the resulting traffic jams brought about by the beginnings of Typhoon "Mario" were rewarded with an entrancingly warm, intimate atmosphere inside the theater-- the combined triumph of Roselyn Perez's unflashy direction, Inday Echevarria's spare accompaniments, John Batalla's lights and Williams' undeniable knack for going solo.

Tricky shifts

"I'm just gonna be honest and straightforward. I am... 51," Williams said at the beginning of the concert, to the audience's knowing laughter. "You're not too eager to please people, and there's an ability to zero in on things that are important."

There couldn't have been a more truthful introduction.

"Never Felt Better" had the bearings of a heart-to-heart chat, its star navigating the tricky shifts between candid and solemn, deadpan humor and sincere storytelling, with the ease of a cabaret star. In the dimmed theater, it was as if all that space had been eliminated, and Williams was right in front of us, doling out precious bits and pieces of him for our perusal.

One suspects it had a lot to do with his voice-- a considerably high-ranged, deceptively lightweight instrument that seems like the property of someone barely out of puberty. But it's precisely this characteristic that makes Williams a master of the art of speech-level singing-- his lyrics granted added weight and his phrasing more insightful.

Thus, his rendition of "Stars" from "Les Miserables" might not have had that rip-roaring operatic quality so often attached to it, but it was a breathtaking fleshing-out of the song as one man's declaration to heaven to pursue justice at all cost.

Prayers, pleas

In Williams' hands, other Broadway anthems like the two other songs in his thrilling "Les Mis" medley, "Bring Him Home" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables," as well as "The Impossible Dream"-- an aria from "Man of La Mancha" that has transcended time, place and vocal prowess to achieve songbook immortality-- ceased to be mere character songs. They became prayers, pleas, revelations.

The intimacy of the evening was also largely because of Echevarria, musical director and pianist, who stripped down most of the numbers to bare-bones accompaniment. Sung by Williams then, Sondheim's "Not a Day Goes By" overwhelmingly resonated with the pain of lost love; and "Marry Me a Little," a bachelor's unspoken wish to somehow find that special someone, never sounded more sincere.

Rolando Tinio's Filipino translation of "If Ever I Would Leave You" from "Camelot," now rendered as "Paano Ba Lilisan," invoked images of native pastoral love with its beautiful poetry. (This was only the second time this version was performed, said Williams.)

Personal ground

Twice that night, Williams also touched on deeply personal ground, singing an amped-up version of "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" from "My Fair Lady," in tribute to the late Zenaida Amador whom he considers his mentor; then, in memory of his father, what could only have been a rare male cover of "Something Wonderful" from "The King and I."

But the somberness never lingered, easily countered by Williams' brand of humor.

"I tend to say yes to everything, and before I know it, I'm double-booked," he said, before aptly segueing to "Call Me Irresponsible," which was originally written for the legendary Judy Garland.

A segment imaginatively set in a nightclub had Williams singing back-to-back renditions of pretty self-explanatory titles: "I Think About Sex" and "The Lies of Handsome Men." More than landing the laughs, however, this portion of the program offered an illustrative glimpse into the kind of evenings one can expect from Williams-- if ever he does choose to immigrate to the land of cabaret.

A farfetched idea, obviously, as the man's too much of a theater gem. But a livelier concert career would be an acceptable compromise.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

PDI Review: 'Musikal!' - The CCP 45th Anniversary Concert

"Oh what a circus, oh what a show! Manila has gone to town!"

My review of "Musikal!"-- a revue of original Pinoy musicals in celebration of the CCP's 45th-- is in today's Inquirer - here. It ran Sept 5-6 at the Main Theater. So incredibly #blessed-- to be part of history, to have borne witness to this gem of a night of a thousand stars.

(Two "Evita" puns in one blog post ought to win an award. Also, in the online version, the 1st of two smaller pictures is mine-- my Inquirer photo debut!)

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Magical 'Musikal!'

It was a night bigger than any other.

While ABS-CBN assembled its bevy of celebrities for its annual, highly publicized dress-and-glam-up festival known as the Star Magic Ball, the palatial Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) played host to an event of even grander and genuinely international scale.

How often, after all, do you get the biggest names of the Philippine performing arts in a single room: the likes of Lea Salonga, Joanna Ampil, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, and Audie Gemora watching Isay Alvarez, Robert Seña, Dulce, and Sheila Francisco perform the works of Ryan Cayabyab, Vincent de Jesus, Mario O'Hara, and Bienvenido Lumbera?

It was also a night unlike any other, as the sweet smell of victory for the true-blue Pinoy talent pervaded the air. 

Long overdue

Every year for at least the past five years, the CCP's Main Theater, as the venue is popularly known, has played host to sold-out touring productions of Broadway musicals-- "Cats," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Wicked," to name a few.

So it was only fitting and, in many ways long overdue, that the hallowed theater would once again be occupied by a homegrown Filipino production of similarly colossal proportions-- or some 20 of them.

"Musikal!"-- a revue of songs and numbers from original Filipino musicals, mostly performed by the original casts themselves-- can be read as the local theater industry's response to the endless parade of foreign imports finding home in the CCP, and the deafening standing ovation that capped its gala night on Sept. 6 was nothing if not life-affirming.

Indeed, in the last few years, something resembling prosperity has descended upon the original Filipino musical, as evidenced by the ever increasing amount of new works and revivals being churned out annually, matched only by an undeniably heightened awareness, interest, and patronage on the part of the audience.

Philippine Educational Theater Association's (Peta) "Rak of Aegis," for example, just recently celebrated its 100th performance, while playing to sold-out houses show after show-- a kind of vindication for those sadder days when the original run of Mario O'Hara's "Stageshow" had to contend against "Phantom" back in October 2012.

Impressive performers

Twenty-two productions displaying a decades-spanning selection of genres were represented during the two-act affair directed by Chris Millado. There were musical ballets ("Rama Hari," "Rock Supremo"), jukebox musicals ("Sa Wakas," "Rak of Aegis"), historical pieces ("Lorenzo," "Ang Kababaihan ng Malolos"), paeans to lost Pinoy forms of entertainment ("Stageshow," "Katy!"), and the indefatigable, rapturous gay romps ("Maxie the Musicale," "Caredivas").

Almost every notable theater company was present, from industry bulwarks like Peta and Tanghalang Pilipino to the fledgling 4th Wall Theater Company and Culture Shock Productions and the student-run Blue Repertory and Dulaang Sibol of Ateneo.

Most impressive, though, was the roster of performers. Imagine: Established names like the husband-and-wife tandem of Alvarez and Seña, newly minted stars such as Aicelle Santos and Myke Salomon, and emerging young talents like Jayvhot Galang (in the title role of "Maxie the Musicale") and the kids of Trumpets' "The Bluebird of Happiness"-- all sharing the same stage in number after rapturous number.

On that note, Alvarez and Salomon were definitely the evening's MVPs, each headlining at least three shows of varying genres: the former shifting from jazzy and growly in "Katy," to rock in "Rak" and a dash of the operatic in "Himala the Musical"; the latter, also in "Rak," as well as doing pop in "Magsimula Ka!" and a bit of cross-dressing in "Caredivas."

Five rectangular panels, upon which GA Fallarme's video projections served as a kind of onstage digital program, flanked the two-tier skeletal performance space (set design by Ricardo Cruz). If anything, such a bare space only served to focus attention on the singing, the acting and the music.

The ending of Act I, in particular, totally captured the spirit of the show: First, the Philippine Madrigal Singers in a specially arranged choral medley of Cayabyab's "Noli Me Tangere the Musical"; followed by the cast of "Rak" singing "Munting Pangarap" to an a capella finish. In other words, just voices, plain and gorgeous.

Vibrant life

The Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Gerard Salonga was the other half of the evening's success, summoning to vibrant life some of the best musical theater compositions ever written. The overture was one of those rare times when you wished it would just go on and on, especially during that solemnly haunting instrumental of "Matimyas Mabuhay sa Sariling Bayan" from "Noli."

By curtain call, the stage literally spilled over with a constellation of stars-- the actors, writers, musicians, and directors of local theater-- singing "Minsan Ang Minahal Ay Ako" from "Katy," as images of departed performing arts luminaries like Atang dela Rama, Katy dela Cruz, Nicanor Abelardo, and Antonio Molina slowly filled the panels. 

It was a moment of pure musical theater magic, a perfectly realized conclusion to an evening that evoked decades' worth of memories and celebrated some of the highest points of this brand of show business. 

Amid shouts of "Brava!" and teary eyes, one could only imagine-- and silently, excitedly wait for-- what could possibly be in store in five years' time.

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It's time to play Spot That Musical Theater Person!