Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Best of Manila Theater 2016

In the Lifestyle-Theater section of today's Philippine Daily Inquirer--here--my year-end report encapsulating 64 productions (23 musicals and 41 "straight" plays), and excluding ballets, concerts and cabarets. This post contains my own pictures, as well as hyperlinks to my reviews.

SEE ALSO:
1. My Best of Manila Theater 2015
2. My Best of Manila Theater 2014
3. My Best of Manila Theater 2013
4. Compilation of links to my theater reviews

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More Best of Theater 2016: A fine sampling

Red Turnip Theater's "Tribes."

Yearend lists, film critic Richard Bolisay wrote early this year, are only "the writer's vain idea of playing favorites and revealing his 'preferences...'" So it goes with theater.

There came a point back in September when it was no longer possible for me to see everything on offer. There was the sudden inclusion of "The Wong Kids in the Secret of the Space Chupacabra Go!" in Tanghalang Pilipino's season.

Also, as a livid, middle-finger response to the Duterte administration's unsurprising complicity in the Marcos burial issue, the "Never Again: Voices of Martial Law" mini-festival of one-act plays was assembled in less than two months, and ran alongside Guelan Luarca's adaptation of Lualhati Bautista's "Desaparesidos." All of which I missed.

Still, the 64 productions I saw this year--not including dances such as Ballet Philippines' "Firebird and Other Ballets" and concerts like the Triple Threats series at the Cultural Center of the Philippines--yielded a fine sampling of top-10 worthy titles.

Musical theater, in particular, enjoyed a better year compared to last, and that's not even counting the returning productions of "Mabining Mandirigma" and "Rak of Aegis" or the international tours of "Les Miserables" and "50 Shades! The Musical Parody."

Production

A list that goes beyond 10 would automatically include, for instance, George de Jesus III's harrowing, in-your-face adaptation of "The Pillowman" for Egg Theater Company; or "The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away Ultimately Becomes Nostalgia," Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas' most accomplished piece since "Ang Huling Lagda ni Apolinario Mabini" two years ago.

Or, from the Virgin Labfest, Carlo Vergara's "Mula sa Kulimliman" and Alexandra May Cardoso's "Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," adapted from Ian Rosales Casocot's short story.

Here, then, are the 10 best productions of 2016:

Repertory Philippines' "Almost, Maine."

1. "Kalantiaw" (Tanghalang Ateneo). It was a celebration of everything that theater should represent: ingenuity, imagination, panache where it matters, and that rare ability to overcome so many odds given so little. More importantly, its subject--one of the biggest hoaxes in Philippine history--could not have been timelier, what with the rising tide of historical revisionism plaguing this country. [REVIEW]

2. "Constellations" (Red Turnip Theater). A show of marked intelligence, emotional depth and humanity, this two-hander about lovers swimming through multiple possibilities in the multiverse was foremost an irresistible display of its actors' tremendous range and never once strayed into self-indulgent territory. [REVIEW]

3. "Tick, Tick... Boom!" (9 Works Theatrical). Beautiful things really do come in small packages: three highly capable actors, Robbie Guevara's understated direction, an underrated specimen of the Broadway musical, and the burning will to tell a story right.

4. "Fun Home" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). Shaped as a graphic cartoonist's attempt to fathom the tangles of her youth, "Fun Home" rendered the act of remembering with piercing clarity. No answers guaranteed, but the boulder it left on your chest by curtain call was its welcome brand of catharsis. [REVIEW]

5. "Almost, Maine" (Repertory Philippines). A thoughtfully realized, captivatingly told gem of a production, held together by Bart Guingona's restrained direction and his first-rate quartet of performers, who dove straight to the whimsical heart of John Cariani's collection of vignettes.

6. "Jersey Boys" (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group). A song-and-dance spectacle that fluidly transitioned from one stunningly sung number to the next, "Jersey Boys" was one of those shows that had you thinking, "Can anything go wrong with it at all?"

7. "Boy" (Tanghalang Ateneo). In telling the story of a boy who was intentionally raised as a girl, and the tragedies that followed, "Boy" captured sadness as neither exaggeration nor frailty, but simply an all-too-human attribute, making sure the viewer fully understood the consequences such great unhappiness entailed. [REVIEW]

8. "Changing Partners" (MunkeyMusic). Vincent de Jesus' gender-bending, May-December love affair--stirringly played by Agot Isidro, Jojit Lorenzo, Sandino Martin and especially Anna Luna--was the real deal: a towering musical that mangled your heart and drained your tear ducts. [REVIEW]

9. "Tribes" (Red Turnip Theater). A mesmerizing, altogether powerful play about the gravity of human bonds, touch, words and the pauses we leave in between. If you think you've seen enough variations of the family-under-fire drama, think again.

10. "Ako Si Josephine" (Cornerstone Entertainment/ABS-CBN Events). Its inherent cuteness notwithstanding, "Josephine" was a vitalizing addition to the jukebox-musical landscape, selling its transfiguration of Yeng Constantino's music with aplomb while also speaking truth--in ways rambunctious yet subtly unnerving--about the state of our nation. [REVIEW]

Performances

Expanding the slate below would include, to name a few, the unembellished lead turns of Kalil Almonte in "Tribes" and Blanche Buhia as the searing center of "Ang Sugilanon... ni Epefania."

In the case of Jonathan Tadioan and Marco Viaña, the victory was thrice as sweet: They top-billed the Labfest's "Mula sa Kulimliman" and "Daddy's Girl," respectively, and were also featured in Tanghalang Pilipino's "Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw" and a perceptively staged translation of Anton Chekov's "Uncle Vanya."

In musical theater, there were Tanya Manalang bringing a true musical theater voice to "Rak of Aegis"; a trifecta of heart-wrenching performances by Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, Cris Villonco and Lea Salonga in "Fun Home"; and three more delectable star turns, from Via Antonio ("Ako Si Josephine"), Carla Guevara-Laforteza ("3 Stars and a Sun") and Bituin Escalante ("Stepping Out, The Musical").

In order, the year's 18 most noteworthy pieces of acting:

Resorts World Manila's "Annie."

1. Mayen Estañero ("Mula sa Kulimliman"). Her portrayal of an ordinary housewife who discovers her husband is of another world was the pinnacle of tragicomedy--an actress giving the performance of a lifetime in a play that matched the magnitude of her abilities.

2. Sheenly Vee Gener ("Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean"). As a former revolutionary coming to terms with love, loss and the demons of her past, Gener delivered a consummate portrait of womanhood devoid of glitz or vanity.

3. JC Santos and Cris Villonco ("Constellations"). In a play that bent time, space and the laws of physics, they were "a pair of stars on terra firma," I wrote back in February. Transformative, moving acting through and through.

4. Missy Maramara ("The Dressing Room: That Which Flows Away..."). Hell hath no fury like an actress scorned--or threatened: That was the gist of Maramara's larger-than-life performance. Her character owned that play, and she owned that stage.

5. Renante Bustamante ("The Pillowman"). As the self-appointed "good cop" in a criminal investigation, Bustamante's was a force-of-nature performance that virtually gave fear--the truly hair-raising, spine-chilling sort--a new face.

6. Angela Padilla ("Tribes"). Amid the deafening noise and silences of that quirky household in "Tribes," she was the refreshing ray of reason and clarity, and this cerebral story's most human touch.

7. Nyoy Volante ("Jersey Boys"). The role of Frankie Valli earns the spotlight only in the show's last quarter, yet Volante had your attention from the moment he let out that pitch-perfect falsetto. By the time he finished his show-stopping rendition of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," you knew this was no mere impersonation; this was the year's finest musical theater performance.

8. Jef Flores ("Tick, Tick... Boom!"). He was a divine, charismatic Jesus in MusicArtes, Inc.'s "Godspell," but it was here, in the unglamorous part of a struggling musician, that Flores really distinguished himself as musical theater's newest leading man. Plus, anyone who can squeeze the rock out of Jonathan Larson and make it sound so effortless deserves our attention.

9. Ricci Chan ("Ako Si Josephine"). Playing the despot in "Ako Si Josephine's" dystopia, he single-handedly lifted the show to epic heights of kabaklaan and brought the house down by sheer force of taray. He was your bes, mars, mudra, gurl and frenemy all squeezed into a crowning performance worthy of the world--the universe, rather.

10. Trency Caga-anan ("Titas of Manila"). As the young-at-heart tita, the one who's had enough of cheating husbands and cheap divorces, Caga-anan was a riot, all limitless spunk and fiery sensuality.

11. Mako Alonso ("Suicide, Incorporated") and Vince Lim ("Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead). We owe Twin Bill Theater for these two breakout performances. The roles--a suicidal young man and a reclusive pianist--may be depressing as hell, but Alonso and Lim surprised us with their sharp, beguiling turns.

12. Cholo Ledesma and Camille Abaya ("Boy"). Two years ago, they already evinced much promise in "Rite of Passage." In "Boy," where they expertly juggled parts obviously way beyond their age, they proved themselves more than ready for professional theater.

13. Bodjie Pascua ("3 Stars and a Sun"). Only a true veteran of the stage such as Pascua can convincingly play a hermit who stops the show cold with a rollicking History-of-the-Philippines rap number.

14. Michael Williams ("Dirty Old Musical"). As a former boy-band member who has come to terms with his identity, Williams was a hoot. His entrance was one for the ages: red jacket, red shoes and Ryan Cayabyab's "Kay Ganda ng Ating Musika" at the ready.

15. Reb Atadero ("Almost, Maine"). His "underacting," in a production that largely eschewed acting pyrotechnics, worked wonders: His characters emerged the most tangible and believable. That's discipline.

Direction

"Ang Sugilanon ng Kabiguan ni Epefania," with Blanche Buhia (3rd from left) and director Charles Yee (5th from left).

This is a pretty small circle, as one is bound to discover over the course of assiduous theatergoing.

For example, two of my picks for the year's best shows--"Constellations" and "Changing Partners"--were both directed by Rem Zamora. And probably no other director hereabouts has a better grasp of the contemporary American musical than Bobby Garcia ("Jersey Boys" and "Fun Home").

This field, however, was defined this year by a pair of young names. The first is Topper Fabregas, who, since making his directorial debut in "Rabbit Hole" two years ago, has really come into his own. In "Tribes," his finding of harmony amid the chaos allowed the work to soar and become, as my colleague Cora Llamas wrote, "compelling, consequential theater."

And the second is Charles Yee, whose enthrallingly stylized work for "Kalantiaw" and "Ang Sugilanon... ni Epefania"--both deftly marrying the mystical with plaintive ordinariness--marked him out as primed for the big leagues.

Artistic and Creative Achievements

The set of 9 Works Theatrical's "American Idiot."

1. Leslie Dailisan's choreography for Artist Playground's "Happiness Is a Pearl"--elegant, expertly calibrated movement within very limited space. At one point, I found my face within inches from an actor's stiletto.

2. Myke Salomon's audacious, genre-spanning musical reimagination for two dystopian stories: Francis Magalona for "3 Stars and a Sun" and Yeng Constantino, largely by way of electropop dance music, for "Ako Si Josephine."

3. The dreamy, hipster look of "Josephine's" denizens, thanks to Carlo Pagunaling's red-pink-and-blue costumes and Gio Gahol's essential choreography.

4. Pagunaling's costumes, Ed Lacson Jr.'s paper-wasteland set, Meliton Roxas Jr.'s sepia-tinted lighting design and Jeff Hernandez's sound design vividly conjuring the otherworldly, old-world aesthetic of "Kalantiaw."

5. In "Tribes," the house of a family of academics believably constructed and furnished by Lacson and lit with strategically placed lamps by John Batalla.

6. "Boy" as a technical feat of small, seemingly insignificant design details cohering into a functional whole: the sound by Teresa Barrozo (her best work to date), Lacson's set (again!) and Barbara Tan-Tiongco's lights.

7. Ma. Cecilia dela Rosa's script for "Ang Mga Bisita ni Jean," a poetic cascade of past and present giving rise to a compelling feminist character study.

8. The year's finest piece of singing: "Jersey Boys."

A final plea

Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay."

Two Saturdays ago, I saw the international touring company staging of Tanghalang Ateneo's "Sintang Dalisay," along with maybe less than 30 other audience members. That its one-weekend run was little seen is a tragedy in itself.

Despite being a tremendously paired down version of the original, this production was nevertheless a transfixing, artfully mounted piece. The cherry on top was watching the cast--a reunion of sorts of the best of the company's most recent alumni--run the show with aplomb. Rerun, please!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

PDI Review: 'Mula sa Buwan' by Black Box Productions; 'A Little Princess' by Repertory Philippines

My last review(s) for the year in today's Inquirer--here.

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'Mula sa Buwan' sings, 'A Little Princess' sags

Opening night cast of "A Little Princess."

It's hard to resist the charms of "Mula sa Buwan," Pat Valera and William Elvin Manzano's musical adaptation of Edmond Rostand's "Cyrano de Bergerac."

True, it's but another tale of broken hearts and hankering lovers, but you'd be surprised at how deep this production reaches into you. In its best moments--and that means all clichés considered--it comes off as a meandering poem you simply wouldn't mind listening to for hours.

Like the original text, Valera's Filipino translation is also in verse. Moreover, he transposes the story's 17th-century setting to pre-Second World War Philippines, to a time when sarsuwela and bodabil were staples of the stage.

That transposition is tenable, but the bigger achievement of this production is making its poetic structure sound plain, as if speaking in rhyme were part of natural pedestrian life. That authenticity is best captured by the first-rate turns of Nicco Manalo as Cyrano (a splendid balance of bluster and tenderness) and KL Dizon as Roxane.

But it's also hard not to wish "Mula sa Buwan," though cogently directed by Valera, had found a better venue.

At Ateneo's Henry Lee Irwin Theater, you are always aware of the excess, unused space in the stage's periphery. The lighting and sound designs both need retooling, and the set design should have committed to either a true bare-bones approach or full-scale grandiosity, and not the middle ground that makes the show look like a high school production.

At over two-and-a-half hours, this production could definitely use some trimming.

Still, "Mula sa Buwan" beats with a heart that's truly its own, and one it never hesitates to bare in full to the audience. It's a little show that has so much to give, one that does not shy away from vulnerability. So, before you know it, you're already in love with it.

Notable revision

Curiously enough, a beating heart is what's missing in Repertory Philippines' "A Little Princess."

The irony here is that this story should be a guaranteed click with Filipino audiences: It's Princess Sarah, for goodness' sake! At the very least, one should be familiar with either the 1995 film "Sarah... Ang Munting Prinsesa" (starring pre-teen Camille Prats and Angelica Panganiban) or the 2007 ABS-CBN TV series.

This version, with book and lyrics by Brian Crawley and music by Andrew Lippa, changes Sarah's background from the English Raj to an African childhood, but that's about the only notable revision.

This African bit takes center stage as director-choreographer Dexter Santos brings his signature emphasis on movement from the Dulaang Unibersidad ng Pilipinas stage to Rep, in the process whipping up a storm of tribal masks and thrashing bodies reminiscent of "The Lion King" on an acid trip (most of the dancing occur as imagined sequences, after all).

That's as authentic as things get.

Squandered opportunity

The problem, it seems, is that this production has a dismaying lack of emotional depth, rendering the overall proceedings inauthentic. You simply don't feel for any of the actors, no matter how well they sing, never mind the inconsistent British accents.

Worse, as you watch this headstrong girl struggle against her vile, iron-fisted orphanage matron, not for a second do you root for her, her friends, or her story.

As a play aimed for children, this "Little Princess" is dispossessed of the ingenious, entertaining qualities that can sustain a kid's attention. Adult audiences, on the other hand, may see this show as a squandered opportunity for emotional resonance (which need not even be something heavy or heart-stabbing).

All technique and no heart, this production sadly leaves you cold and yearning for a return to Rep's better years--"Little Women," "Jekyll and Hyde," "The Producers," etc. Maybe next year?