Saturday, July 29, 2017

Seven months gone

 Himeji Castle, 2017-06-09.

Seven months gone. Already.

I finished "The Leftovers" the other day. I don't know that I can actually summon the right word to encapsulate the magnificent, almost spiritual experience of watching this. Makes you see just how truly awful the Philippine television industry is, if only to base on the output. Now I've started on the second season of "Fargo," alongside the new "Game of Thrones" on Mondays.

Last night, I saw "Miss Sloane"--the stupidest movie of 2016. In an alternate universe, Jessica Chastain would have won her second Oscar (the first for "Zero Dark Thirty"), but this steaming pile of shit simply does not deserve her. 

I'm at the airport again, this time with family. Japan seems like a long time ago already. More so the Bicol trip with the girls. I've yet to blog about either, so I'll just leave you some pictures. Heck, I haven't even finished the Taipei travelogue; don't know if I will.

The past few days here in Iloilo have been pretty wet. How's your side of the world?

The approach to Legazpi City. May 2017.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

PDI Review: 'Newsies' by 9 Works Theatrical

My review of 9 Works' "Newsies" at that outdoor theater in BGC is in today's paper--here. Will now go on a reviewing hiatus; see you at "West Side Story." "Newsies" runs until next weekend; "Kinky Boots" closes tomorrow.

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Forget the story--'Newsies' is superb acrobatic pageantry


Who needs a good story, or at least a well-written book, when you can have the riveting spectacle of dancing men?

That seems to be the idea implicit in "Newsies," 9 Works Theatrical's latest venture at the Globe Iconic Amphitheater in Bonifacio Global City. The musical, adapted from the 1992 Disney musical of the same name, is a woefully distended creature, taking longer than it should to tell its tale of underdogs battling money-grabbing masters.

The story: In turn-of-the-century New York, Jack Kelly and his fellow newsies stand up to the powers that be and win the day. But Harvey Fierstein's book is so bloated, it would float straight to the stratosphere were it made of helium.

The score by Alan Menken (music) and Jack Feldman (lyrics) is an uneven mix, with only a few songs, like the wistful opening "Santa Fe," latching onto the brain.

Wholly original

It's the dancing that pumps life into this musical. And in this 9 Works production directed by Robbie Guevara, the choreography is a wholly original invention by PJ Rebullida.

It's not every day that dance takes center stage in musical theater. But what a fortuitous month this has been, with "Newsies" running alongside another production that flaunts all-stops-out dancing--Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's "Kinky Boots," with its bevy of high-heeled, hysterically flexible drag queens.

In "Newsies," it's the sight of balletic man-boys, tumbling and pirouetting every so often, that seizes the viewer's attention. This acrobatic pageantry becomes even more impressive when one considers the fact that not all of them are seasoned dancers.

Rebullida's work really perks this production up; some of the numbers, like the tap-dancing congregation of "King of New York," would ring callow without his choreography.

Leading-man aplomb

The other reason to see this "Newsies" is Gian Magdangal, who returns to local stages after a few years of performing abroad. As Jack Kelly, Magdangal is a vision of leading-man aplomb, launching himself into the heart of the character without exaggeration.

It's this sort of unembellished acting and charismatic self-assurance that sets him and Jef Flores (as Davie, who acts as Kelly's right-hand man) apart from the ensemble. The two of them stand out without blatantly meaning to, while behind them, various accents, sometimes unintelligible dialogue and unnecessary physical gestures are thrown everywhere.

Not that the ensemble is wholly at fault here: "Newsies" is a story populated by a magnitude of one-note roles, just a few of which become credible characters in more experienced hands--say, Greg Dulcie as the antagonistic publishing magnate Joseph Pulitzer and Pinky Marquez, in the dispensable part of the actress Medda Larkin.

This unrealistic quality also haunts Ed Lacson's set--impressive in scale, but lacking in texture--and Martin Esteva's disconcertingly aimless lighting design.

One may argue that the point here is not realism; this is, after all, a "kiddie" musical, constructed with topnotch entertainment values and convenient happy endings in mind. But as kiddie musicals go, the world, to play on a lyric, has certainly known better.

Where 9 Works' "Newsies" succeeds, then, is in diminishing the scale of its source's flaws. Here, the spotlight burns brightest on a pair of engaging lead performances and some of the finest dancing local musical theater has seen this decade. Now there's a worthy headline.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

PDI Review: Virgin Labfest XIII

My omnibus review of the 13th Virgin Labfest, which ends tomorrow (Jul. 16), is in today's paper--here. This is the third year I'm doing this; the next will probably be after residency already. 

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Virgin Labfest 13: A 'wagas' (all out) but mixed bag

"Hindi Ako si Darna."

Culled from a record of 192 submissions, the 12 new plays presented at the ongoing 13th Virgin Labfest (themed "Wagas") at the Cultural Center of the Philippines is quite a mixed bunch--none of them as drop-dead terrific as, say, "Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng Mga Tala." Some even glaringly violate the timeworn literary mantra "kill your darlings"--that calls against self-indulgence, in favor of of brevity and purposefulness.

'Birdcage'

An example is Rick Patriarca's "Birdcage"--a simple conversation between two long-time employees of a BPO company, but through poignant use of details and subtext, unveils this festival's most convincing realist writing.

Here, Patriarca displays a deft hand at naturalistic, observant dialogue--the antithesis to his louder-than-loud "Hapagkainan" from last year. And Aldo Vencilao and Gie Onida (in one of the year's most compelling performances) fully embody the millennial struggle between passion and practicality, cynicism and optimism.

The final scene, however, is a stumble: Vencilao's character launching into a long-winded memory monologue that merely reiterates previously presented ideas. Absent this portion, the play would be tighter, if not more powerful.

'Sincerity Bikers' Club'

Adrian Ho's "Sincerity Bikers' Club" tackles the government's war on drugs from a small town perspective, examining how a local biking club is torn apart by fear and paranoia upon knowing its newest member is the widow of an alleged addict. 

But the play deliberately invents its own conflict, its characters seemingly existing in a vacuum. If the club is really as tight as the play makes it out, shouldn't there have been a discussion on this issue beforehand? And though it digs deep in portraying herd mentality, the play eventually settles for the platitudinous and predictable.

Still, it is easy to be swept away by the fine dramatic tension produced by Jenny Jamora's incisive direction, and an ensemble that really knows each other's rhythms.

'Boses ng Masa'

The same can't be said of Joshua Lim So's "Boses ng Masa," directed by Guelan Luarca. The whole play is about Chris and Hector, employees of a political campaign, arguing whether or not to publicize a sex scandal that will damage their rival.

What damages this play, though, is the character of Chris (played by Jerome Dawis)--so thinly written and thinly acted that Renante Bustamante as Hector simply swallows him whole. Its question-and-answer format used to better effect in "Sincerity Bikers' Club," the play is only topically engaging and its ending, obviously intended for shock value, only cheapens this laborious, drawn-out affair.

'Love Team'

In Oggie Arcenas' "Love Team," directed by Michael Williams, a debuting artist and a washed-up artista reunite long after the demise of their onscreen love team. The conversation here is two-pronged: one arm on celebrity status and the price of fame, the other on modern-day gay romances.

But what to make of a play that not only repeats itself, but repeats itself twice? Wrap it up 20 minutes earlier and nothing vital would have been subtracted from its message. One suspects its undisciplined length only serves to delay the eventual crowd-pleasing, kilig-producing kiss between its actors.

'Ang Mga Puyong'

Ryan Machado's "Ang Mga Puyong," directed by Ricardo Magno, is also a curious selection: It is inherently Jerome Ignacio's "Kublihan" from two years ago, sans the nimble handle on subtlety and character shading.

Two boys coming of age in a relatively isolated place, who may or may not have feelings for each other--a premise neither untried nor untested. In fact, it is so formulaic, one can already intuit where the story is heading, despite the loquacious dilly-dallying and the play's attempts at slowly overwhelming the viewer with one scandalous revelation after another.

'Si Dr. Dolly Dalisay at ang Mga Ladybugs'

The dilly-dallying is even less tolerable in Layeta Bucoy's "Si Dr. Dolly Dalisay at ang Mga Ladybugs," which tries to merge the alienating world of scientific research with the maudlin universe of TV soaps.

And like a soap, the play, directed by Jonathan Tadioan, force-feeds its audience with careless dialogue and conspicuously inserted dramatic moments, its idea of humor a scenery-chewing Celeste Legaspi playing trashy cruel mother to Dolly de Leon's smug scientist, who harps on and on about her "PhD in Entomology."

'Ang Bata sa Bus Stop'

Conversely, Sari Saysay's "Ang Bata sa Bus Stop," directed with an eye for tenderness by Topper Fabregas, is a play that doesn't aim for literal largeness so much as the metaphorical kind, concerning itself with a priest about to leave the monastic life behind.

At the titular bus stop, the priest encounters a rather precocious boy who asks him questions he isn't ready to answer. Then, distinctions are blurred, as the viewer finally realizes who the boy is.

But by the dawning of that revelation, what this play has become is one very long homily. It tells and tells instead of showing, and hardly takes chances, barely exploring the sociorealistic points it throws up in the air.

'Ang Bahay sa Gitna ng Kawalan'

Eliza Victoria's "Ang Bahay sa Gitna ng Kawalan" uses the playwright's expertise in speculative fiction to bring horror into the theater. One can imagine how successful this story might be on the page, where transcendence of consciousness and rationality can be elucidated in more precise detail.

Onstage, however, those fantastical elements don't translate well, given the constraints of linear storytelling. The production is a bamboozling mess, the actors playing on different registers of horror and George de Jesus' direction barely able to splice them together. This is psychological horror meets the supernatural meets campy "Shake, Rattle & Roll," and being everything at once isn't always a good thing.

'Dear and Unhappy'

In Carlo Vergara's "Dear and Unhappy," only Cris Villonco, as a neurotic, disoriented Josephine Bracken, seems to be in on the joke.

Vergara writes fully realized female roles, from "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady," "Mula sa Kulimliman" and now here. But this production, directed by Ricky Villabona, isn't as assured as his previous work. The play already loses itself in the first half, striving to include as many points of discussion as possible--American colonialism, feminism in the prefeminist age and even the humanization of our most revered heroes. The resulting production feels inchoate, the magical character played by Bernardo Bernardo functioning as a mere device.

'Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat'

In the end, three comedies prevail. Eljay Castro Deldoc's "Pilipinas Kong Mahal With All the Overcoat," directed by Roobak Valle and Tuxqs Rutaquio, can use some trimming but it proves to be a highly ambitious and imaginative piece in tackling the advent of fake news.

Ambet (Paul Jake Paule, making the most out of a redundant character) and Nato (Fitz Bitana, electrifying) are the brains behind a website that peddles untruths. On the verge of greater recognition, Ambet has a change of heart, putting him at odds with Nato, who sees the site as nothing more than a cash cow.

All things considered, this is the most successful among the entries that deal with current events. This is Deldoc as master of farce: Look no further than the supporting turns of Chunchi Cabasaan (as the emissary of a certain despotic family from Ilocos) and Anthony Falcon (a riot as a fundamentalist minister).

'Nothing but Dreams'

Dingdong Novenario's "Nothing but Dreams" is a pitch-perfect amalgam of black comedy and realist drama. Transposing the Tracy-Hepburn classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" into a Filipino setting, Novenario's script is both urgent and realistic, given the casual racism in present society.

Directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna, with a strong ensemble led by Audie Gemora and Madeleine Nicolas, "Nothing but Dreams" is proof that theater can be both polarizing yet downright convincing. To paraphrase a cliché, it hurts because its true.

'Hindi Ako si Darna'

Finally, this Labfest's most satisfying entry is Maynard Manansala and U.Z. Eliserio's "Hindi Ako si Darna," which is basically a study of the superhero in a postsuperhero age.

Although bloated in parts and rather slow at the start, the play is still a rollicking laugh trip--intelligent without being pompous, hilarious without being excessive. The first-rate ensemble, which includes Tetchie Agbayani as a now grandmotherly Darna, Ricci Chan as bitter, faux-British Ding and John Lapus as an out-of-shape Valentina, confidently heave this play to comedic heights.

"Hindi Ako si Darna," directed by Andoy Ranay, doesn't pretend to be anything other than the all-stops-out entertainment it is. And in the modesty of that ambition, it proves to be a bigger, more resonant piece than many other entries. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

PDI Review: 'Sister Act' - The 2017 Asian Tour in Manila

My review of "Sister Act," Ovation Productions' second theatrical venture in the country, is in today's paper--here. Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group's "Kinky Boots" at the RCBC Theater, meanwhile, is just fantastic.

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'Sister Act'--where the convent is now a sorority house


Midway through the second act of "Sister Act," its protagonist, down-on-her-luck club singer Deloris Van Cartier, sings: "I'll have my sisters with me still/I'll have my sisters, always will," and one can't help wondering whether or not she's still talking about the same sisters of the immaculate frock and immaculate voice bopping all around her.

Deloris, one should recall, is on witness protection after walking in on her gangster boyfriend shooting a henchman dead. Now she's hiding out in a convent, in the process resurrecting the once-hopeless choir while clashing with the traditional Mother Superior.

When Deloris breaks into the title song, however, it's the ultimate cue for the audience to finally accept the fact that "Sister Act" the movie and the musical are only half-sisters at most.

Though it basically follows the movie's plot, this stage version has lost much of the whimsy, that slightly out-of-your-mind quality, that made the iconic 1992 film starring Whoopi Goldberg such a trip. The nuns, for instance, no longer blackmail a helicopter pilot to fly them to Vegas, where they'd scurry through the slot machines to save Deloris.

Girl power generation

In place of flat-out zaniness, we now have a "Sister Act" for the girl power generation, if your sisters were chaste and ardently Catholic. The nuns as Deloris' sorority sisses, anyone?

There is now also a dispensable love story on the side, plus one too many song-and-dance numbers and a glittery bear hug at the end to pummel the message that, hey, sometimes the people we least want to accept end up changing us for the better. Who knew?

This stage version also has a totally original score (music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Glenn Slater) and though some of the numbers do raise the rafters during the show, none of the songs really cling to your brain the way, say, "I Will Follow Him" unfailingly follows you around.

The production at The Theatre at Solaire, an international tour that ends its two-week run tomorrow (July 9), is a model of efficiency. It shares the direction, choreography and almost the same design team with the original Broadway production.

Without a hitch

Like a well-orchestrated mass, this touring production moves fluidly, singing and dancing and transitioning from scene to scene without a hitch. So fluidly, in fact, that it all feels perfunctory.

Dené Hill as Deloris, for example, is all surefire spunk and feisty confidence--a one-note performance that's as predictable as the plot. When she leads the nuns in prayer for the first time, she's like an overconfident girl scout cluelessly bungling an oath.

And she never fully sheds that skin of overflowing enthusiasm to reveal a more vulnerable, conflicted interior--the kind that made Goldberg's portrayal worth rooting for.

Hill and Rebecca Mason-Wygal (as Mother Superior) do manage to evince the bullhead-against-bullhead dynamic that Goldberg and Dame Maggie Smith did so well in the movie. But they never feel like equals--more like a school principal contending with her childish ward, which makes their eventual reconciliation less satisfying.

It's the less glitzy parts that allow room for surprise--that of Deloris' boyfriend Curtis, for example, whose one song number doesn't feel expendable courtesy of Brandon Godfrey's sinister stylings.

Alas, the rest of this "Sister Act" settles for the unsurprising. Thus, while performed with a surplus of smiles, it can get monotonous pretty quick, like a sorority party running dry on booze and crazy.