Saturday, February 18, 2017

PDI Review: 'Wicked' - The 2016 International Tour in Manila

My review of the British "Wicked" playing The Theatre at Solaire is in today's Inquirer. And here is the link to my review of the Asia-Pacific tour of 2014. I would also like to take this opportunity to say that Madame Morrible reminds me so much of Kellyanne Conway.

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'Wicked' now more than just a spectacle

It should come as no surprise that "Wicked," which debuted in Manila three years ago and is now back via a brand-new international tour that started in Britain last year, still delivers.

This is, after all, a replica of the Broadway and West End productions, give or take a few alterations. To buy a ticket would be to see essentially the same song-and-dance spectacular that made Idina Menzel a household name and "Defying Gravity" a go-to anthem for those with lungs of brass.

At this point, it seems almost superfluous to extol the individual virtues of this show. Put it this way: You definitely get your money's worth, as far as entertainment value is concerned.

The sound is especially excellent in this production, and that has a lot to do with the top-notch acoustics of The Theatre at Solaire, where the musical plays until March 19. The voices don't strike you as amplified, and the dynamic mix of the orchestrations allows individual instruments to come to life without distracting from the totality of the music.

Everything else--from the gargantuan scaffold-and-cogwheel set and the rapturous dancing, to the cast of triple threats who amusingly speak and sing in the Queen's English--helps drive home the notion that it's the audiences, in the long run, who determine the success or failure of a show.

But there's also the notion that theater should be a mirror of society. And who would have thought that "Wicked" would turn out to be such a resonant show in the post-2016 era?

A good-hearted witch outcast for her green skin, a vapid blonde beloved for her beauty, an autocratic but fraudulent political leader, the eventual rule of the misinformed mob--suddenly, the musical's broad (and sometimes broadly illustrated) thematic points cease to be just fodder for the plot.

Time capsule

To see "Wicked" today is to see the year that was--one marked by divisiveness and fear-mongering--unfold as a time capsule in unending shades of green.

That may just be reading too much into a musical that's meant to be wish fulfillment for teenage girls the world over, of course. But, midway through the first act, seeing that sign that says, "Animals should be seen and not heard," lets you realize just how closely hewn to real life this revisionist take on "The Wizard of Oz" has unintentionally become.

This production of "Wicked," led by the winning pair of Jacqueline Hughes (Elphaba) and Carly Anderson (Glinda), with Kim Ismay as a wickedly funny Madame Morrible, may remain a perfectly satisfying sensory assault. The show itself, though, has become so much more than that. 

Saturday, February 11, 2017

PDI Review: 'Sa Wakas' by Culture Shock Productions/Fringe Manila

My review of the restaging of "Sa Wakas," which ends a sold-out, five-week run at The Circuit Makati, is in today's paper--here.

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'Sa Wakas': The sleeper hit is now hit-or-miss

It's definitely a hit if there's even a Facebook page pleading for your show's return.

Nearly four years later, "Sa Wakas," the jukebox musical that spins a love triangle around the songs of defunct rock band Sugarfree, is back. And the beauty of time is that it brings perspective.

Effective structure

"Sa Wakas" of 2013 was a beautiful surprise, not only for the effectiveness of its inverted-time structure, but also for its clear-eyed and lived-in depiction of middle-class millennial life in Manila. It captured not just a youthful belief in dreams and possibility, but also the gritty push-and-pull of romantic entanglements.

This time, Andrei Pamintuan still directs. Ejay Yatco, whose revitalizing rearrangements of the Sugarfree songbook are one of the best things about this musical, now helms a seven-piece band. The design elements more or less retain the original look.

But Pamintuan has admittedly tinkered with and expanded the original script (which he co-wrote with Ina Abuan). If anything, this "Sa Wakas" now feels uncomfortably long (three hours with intermission).

Edited lines such as "Wala nang James Reid sa iyong Nadine" in the song "Wala" serve their purpose in updating the play's milieu, but the bigger picture is now a wordier one. More talk may mean more complex, fleshed-out characters, but it also runs the risk of these people falling into stereotype.

There are three new leads--Pepe Herrera as photographer Topper, Cara Barredo as neurosurgeon Lexi and Maronne Cruz as magazine editor Gabbi--alternating with original cast members Victor Robinson III, Caisa Borromeo and Justine Peña, respectively.

Ideal match

The truth is, the success of each performance of "Sa Wakas" is heavily dependent upon the combination of actors one gets to see.

Robinson and Borromeo, for example, are an ideal match. Their equally self-possessed takes on their characters make for a level playing field, and when they engage in the modern-day game of love and loss, the stakes feel so much higher and more exciting to witness.

Robinson's singing voice remains a wonder, while Borromeo is a perfect fit for this pragmatic, Philistine-doctor-with-a-heart version of Lexi. Their portrayals make you understand how they could have fallen for each other, how they could feed off each other's energies, and how their love could eventually go up in flames.

Herrera provides a more grounded approach to Topper, and his particular brand of self-deprecating humor opens more emotional channels for the character. But pairing him with Barredo makes you question how Topper and Gabbi could have even worked in the first place.

Lost battle

Barredo's take on Lexi is more cute and charming than confident, which doesn't do anything to make her believable as a neurosurgeon. Paired with Herrera, the battle is just about lost from the start: There's no way the passionate, strong-willed Topper could not have overwhelmed this rather simplistic Lexi. You see why he would actually tire of her and set her gaze elsewhere.

It's also worth noting that Herrera looks absolutely nothing like Hans Dimayuga, who plays Topper's brother. With Robinson in the lead, the number "Dear Kuya" not only becomes a thrilling vocal showdown between brothers, but also a case of convincing casting.

Cruz and Peña, both tracing their roots back to Ateneo Blue Repertory, each elegantly fills the part of the self-assured, liberated Gabbi (though Peña's weaker singing voice falls victim to the atrocious sound design plaguing this production at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater).

The perfect trio of actors can summon the very qualities that made audiences fall in love with "Sa Wakas" back then. Absent that, this musical can end up evoking the treacly "kabit" movie or teleserye one of its characters scoffs at.

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ERRATUM: Paragraph five of the version of this review published in today's Philippine Daily Inquirer cites Pamintuan and Abuan as being both responsible for the rewrites in this production. But Abuan was not involved with this year's production. This version reflects that correction. Apologies.