Sunday, September 27, 2015

PDI Review: 'Mundong Entablado' by the One Night Stand cabaret series

It was a privilege to write this piece--the website version here. To many more smashing nights like this at the One Night Stand cabaret. 

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'Mundong Entablado': A sensational night for the original Filipino musical

"Pambayad ng trophy!" chirped Nonie Buencamino during the opening spiel of "Mundong Entablado," the one-night-only fund-raising concert for the Philippine Legitimate Stage Artists' Group (Philstage) held Sept. 1 at 12 Monkeys Music Hall & Pub in Century City Mall, Makati City.

The "trophy" in question was a jocular reference to the Gawad Buhay! Awards for the Performing Arts, which Philstage has been handing out for the past seven years in a ceremony that, while definitely no match against the scale and spectacle of the Aliw Awards, can already claim to be the most legitimate of its kind.

Festive reunion

"Mundong Entablado," the fifth edition of the One Night Stand cabaret series pioneered by Joaquin Valdes, Chinie Concepcion and Mica Pineda, proved to be more festive reunion than concert, like one huge artistic family coming together for two hours of belting and repartee. The air was rife with familiarity, the sense of celebration quite infectious.

Since its inception last April, One Night Stand had so far been about uneven singing and tipsy bantering, its theme nights providing a venue for theater actors to let their hair down and let the alcohol do half the talking and singing (in keeping with the art form's true spirit).

Last month's edition was a glorious departure from the mold: Carla Guevara-Laforteza's 40th birthday concert. It was a scorcher of an evening, her take on Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Unexpected Song" quite the bravura showstopper, one of those ephemeral moments theater worshipers live for.

"Mundong Entablado," directed by Topper Fabregas, deigned to raise the bar even higher for the monthly cabaret: Its theme was the original Filipino musical.

Even in timing, it was already a cheeky move. Only a year ago, theatergoers and the culture-loving public were treated to something rather similar, but of much grander proportions: "Musikal!"--the 45th anniversary concert of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP).

"It was a night bigger than any other," we wrote, as the who's who of the local performing arts descended upon the palatial Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo in a starry rendezvous.

Smaller setup

"Mundong Entablado" was a much smaller setup with fewer performers--downscaled to the max, to use the pedestrian expression.

But the concert itself was, in a word, sensational. Buencamino, together with Bituin Escalante, Sweet Plantado-Tiongson, Cris Villonco, Kim Molina, OJ Mariano and Sandino Martin--all of them having starred in original Filipino musicals--stormed the stage and, again, to use a common phrase, sang the hell out of the night.

Count them--17 numbers, including four medleys, representing 16 musicals. Still, already clocking in at a little over two hours, the selection felt oddly limited.

For one, there was the lack of English language work such as Trumpets' visually stunning "The Bluebird of Happiness," or 4th Wall Theatre Company's "Rivalry."

And, given that more than half of the selection were musicals shown within the last five years or so, this ostensible preference for recent work missed the likes of Dulaang UP's (DUP) "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" and "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini"--both premiered splashily to acclaim last year--or the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) warhorse "Care Divas," or the late great Mario O'Hara's "Stageshow" (in which Buencamino danced up quite a storm three years ago).

More original Filipino musicals are being staged and restaged these days, and more importantly, being patronized by audiences. Parallel to this happy development, the days when exclusivity and territoriality governed the country's various theater companies appear to have largely vanished now, with everyone from directors to designers freely hopping from one company to another, wherever work may be found.

It's a tighter, more harmonious community, where the goal is simply to put on a darn good show.

Bountiful age

Look no further for proof of this bountiful age than in Peta's "Rak of Aegis," which, having played more than 200 shows in less than two years, already occupies its own legendary perch in the industry. Beyond being a wildly entertaining work, it has also become sort of a gold standard in crafting a jukebox musical.

That "Musikal!" and "Mundong Entablado" each utilized medleys of those vocal cord-busting Aegis songs as act enders must speak only of the clout Myke Salomon's revitalizing orchestrations have acquired.

An even better example of the genre (to us, at least) is Culture Shock Production's "Sa Wakas," the middle-class love triangle told in reverse in the style of Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along," that employed songs by the now defunct band Sugarfree.

Hearing Villonco, Martin and Molina tear through "Prom," "Ikaw Pala" and "Bawat Daan" (an original song written specifically for the stage) was a ravishing reminder of the heart-tugging beauty those songs, rearranged by Ejay Yatco, possess.

Or how about Dalanghita Productions' "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," which this year became local theater's version of a summer blockbuster? It was a laugh trip from start to finish (and featured what is, in our book, the year's best musical theater performance so far--Molina's as the ambitious Viva). The last time a fantastical superhero musical hit this big was the Tanghalang Pilipino moneymaker "ZsaZsa Zaturnnah."


These days, historical work also remains a reliable source of inspiration. Ryan Cayabyab's take on the illustrious Jose Rizal novels are already in a league of their own, represented during the concert by Buencamino's haunting "Awit ni Isagani" from "El Filibusterismo," and Plantado-Tiongson's medley of "Awit ni Maria" and "Awit ni Sisa" from "Noli Me Tángere" ("The nerve!" she exclaimed at the end, a finger pointed at herself, to laughs and cheers).

In less than a year, we've also had two musicals on Apolinario Mabini: Floy Quintos' "Huling Lagda" (gloriously sung and passionately acted) and Tanghalang Pilipino's radically reimagined "Mabining Mandirigma," starring a subtly powerful Delphine Buencamino as a female Mabini.

There's even "The Mahabharata," which became "Ang Nawalang Kapatid" ("the year's best and most complex dancing," we wrote in our theater roundup last year, by DUP's talented corps of student-actors).

The movies, too, have had their slice of the stage. "Himala, The Musical" provided the medley that thunderously concluded "Mundong Entablado." Scored by Vincent de Jesus, it was last staged three years ago in concert form starring May Bayot, Isay Alvarez and Dulce (the last two the same powerhouse duo that anchored the 2013 revival of what is widely considered the mother of original Filipino musicals,  "Katy!").

Now, there's "Maxie the Musicale," an ebullient and entertaining, if unevenly written, take on Auraeus Solito's award-winning film; and yes, despite all that's been said of it, even Resorts World Manila's crowd-pleasing "Bituing Walang Ningning," adapted from the Sharon Cuneta-Cherie Gil classic.

More than anything, "Mundong Entablado" was a splendid reminder of where the original Filipino musical is right now: front and center of our stages. May it never leave that spot, and may it rain trophies on anyone who's doing his or her share to help it live on forever.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

PDI Review: 'South Pacific in Concert' by Resorts World Manila

What do Ballet Philippines' "Manhid," Upstart Productions' "Into the Woods," Resorts World's "Bituing Walang Ningning," and PETA's revival of "Noli and Fili Dekada Dos Mil" have in common? I shall speak no further.

Anyway, I'm back in the papers after almost two months (thank you, Internal Medicine!). My review of Resorts World's "South Pacific in Concert," which plays its second and final show tonight, is in today's Inquirer--here.

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An enchanting 'South Pacific in Concert,' thanks to an enchanting leading lady

She has dreamed a dream in time gone by as a prostitute in 19th-century France; climbed trees, scraped her knee and torn her dress as a freewheeling nun in Salzburg, Austria; and danced on the last night of the world with her American GI in wartime Saigon.

Now she's on an island in the Pacific, "a cockeyed optimist, immature and incurably green," and don't be surprised if you find yourself falling in love with this wonderful gal as the night wears on.

Such is the sweeping charm of Joanna Ampil, eminent star of the West End's "Miss Saigon" and "Les Miserables," who gives a performance of crystalline delicacy and unbridled buoyancy in Resorts World Manila's concert presentation of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Pulitzer Prize-winning "South Pacific," directed by Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.

The musical, last staged in Manila in 1997 by Repertory Philippines, is a map of two love stories on a South Pacific island in the midst of the Second World War: that of Nellie Forbush, a self-confessed hick of a US Navy nurse, with the French plantation owner Emile de Becque; and that of Lt. Cable with the virginal islander Liat, who is disturbingly paired with the former by her scheming mother Bloody Mary.

Deeply humanizing

For two nights only (it plays its second and final show tonight), Ampil sings the part of Nellie. Yet, not for a minute does she make it seem as if she's only there to hit those notes. Employing the most convincing Southern accent we've heard in the theater of late, Ampil locates a deeply humanizing core in the character, and the result is a perceptively shaded portrait of a woman who can be schmaltzy lover, animated friend and prejudiced stranger all at the same time.

It is largely to Ampil's credit that this discreetly abridged staging of "South Pacific" feels as if it were the real thing. Her Nellie is all flesh and burbling blood, and the subtly lacerating work she puts into the first act's final scene, when Nellie discovers Emile's past relationship with a Polynesian woman and her bigoted side surfaces ("Colored," she exclaims), erases any sliver of doubt that somebody else could possibly do the role, should the producers decide to put on the real thing.

Ampil finds an able match in opera singer Jon Meer Vera Perez as Emile. Though he tends to scrunch his face too much to convey expression--unfortunately captured all too clearly by the tawdry video projections on both sides of the stage--Vera Perez is nonetheless a commanding presence, alluring and faintly vulnerable.

And boy, does the music soar with his voice; his "Some Enchanted Evening" and "This Nearly Was Mine" are two of the show's genuinely thrilling numbers.


Meanwhile, Ima Castro cuts a voluptuous, if slightly youthful, figure as Bloody Mary. But her performance makes you wonder at the possibilities that the likes of Sheila Francisco (who played the role to acclaim in London's National Theatre in the early 2000s, and can be heard in that production's cast recording) could have realized.

Castro is not at all inadequate; she's just underwhelming, lacking in heft and power, and while she exudes the character's air of lecherous mystery--a trait that could imaginably work to her advantage in a full-on staging--her remarkably high vocal range never really finds complete comfort in the score.

It's this same problem with low notes that hounded her otherwise busty portrayal of the beachside siren Saraghina--Bloody Mary's long-lost Italian relative, if you may--in Atlantis Productions' "Nine" three years ago.

It isn't any better for Mark Bautista as Lt. Cable. A pop star by nature, he was a dashing delight in Resorts World's "Bituing Walang Ningning," one of the few pleasures to be had in that otherwise deeply problematic production (but let's not get carried away now).

But here, where the score leans towards traditional Broadway and, occasionally, the near-operatic, Bautista is visibly uneasy with the sustained notes, the lack of wiggle room for riffs and bends, and sadly, yes, even his character's few high notes.

Sumptuous playing

That is unfortunate, because Rogers' music has never sounded richer, more luscious, more alive, than in the sumptuous playing by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Rodel Colmenar. A particularly ingenious moment during the overture hints at the dark underbelly of this deceptively sunny musical, when the lilting strains of "I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy" are contrasted with images of skyrocketing bombs and mushroom clouds on the LED screens onstage.

The ensemble, too, does fine vocal work (and curiously enough, they seem to have crossed over en masse from Dalanghita Productions' earlier smash musical "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady").

If there's any displeasure to be had in this concert, it is the sound. You'd think, given that this is only a two-night affair--and a concert at that, where the voices, the singing and the sound should be the focus--that they'd have somehow perfected all the acoustic elements.

Yet, opening night was marred by mic scratches and irritating reverb and infuriating audio feedback. Ampil even had to do her first scene with a handheld microphone, which came several inaudible lines too late. But this seasoned pro carried on as if nothing were wrong and never once struck a false note.

If this "South Pacific" makes for an enchanting evening in the too-capacious Newport Performing Arts Theater, it is, for the most part, thanks to its enchanting leading lady.