Tuesday, February 22, 2011

They're Not Gonna Pay Rent

The late Jonathan Larson will forever be remembered for having set to life a group of bohemian New Yorkers who essentially live to defy the norms and plunge through society’s shallow albeit time-tested cultural constructs. This time, they’re back on the Manila stage, and they’re mad as hell.

In the third incarnation of 9 Works Theatrical’s production of Rent, currently running until March 6 at the RCBC Theater, Makati City, we are treated to a darker, if more compelling adaptation of the Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner. This, coming from someone who breezed through the company’s first run exactly a year ago and exited the theater with a less pleasing experience than what he initially had in mind.

It was my third professional musical production, and personal expectations were running high, what with the show being one of my four most favorite pieces of theater. If memory serves me right, however, the night was not one without stains and splotches: missed notes here, awkward acting there, technical errors scattered throughout both two acts. In his review, the theater critic Gibbs Cadiz even singled out the show’s lack of despair and genuine emotion, without which the soul of Larson’s magnum opus breaks to a thousand pieces.

But as they say, third time’s the charm – and this couldn’t ring any truer for this current production of Rent. Having caught it on its second Sunday, I must say – and congratulations are in order – that at the very least, the company has finally found its footing. Somehow, somewhere in the span of five hundred, twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes or less, including eight performances for a second run last December, Director Robbie Guevara and his team of thespians left the previews niche and finally opened the show for real.

It’s winter, and Larson’s band of eight friends aren’t the only ones who are angry with the way things are. It seems the whole Lower East Side has been saturated with the ‘injustices’ of life. They’re mad because they can’t (and yet, are being forced to) pay the rent. They’re mad because in their generic apartment units, they have no heat. Worst of all, they’re mad because life hasn’t been easy. Half of the eight are struggling with AIDS, the other half lashing out their best to cope with time, change, and culture. The world is not as bright as it once promised to be.

That last statement is basically half the message that the show left me upon exiting the theater. If you’ve seen the 2005 film version of the musical, or even just the 2008 Live-on-Broadway DVD, you’d eventually notice that this production’s approach to the material is not conventional. Yes, the hopeful mantra of ‘No Day but Today’ still hangs proud across the stage, but whoever said today can’t be cloudy and gloomy? Promotional photos of the cast posted earlier on Facebook bear glum and morose faces. The motif has been changed as well, and it's no longer as colorful as last year's. Even the lovers in the musical aren’t spared the melancholy. Oh, and there's an abundance of eyeliner (but this may be more of a rock thing).

But whatever the exact state of the weather, this company certainly worked well under it. If they’ve decided to leave the state of flawless optimism in favor of conveying confusion and internal struggles, then what I witnessed last Sunday was already an adequate job, to say the least. I must admit, this take on the musical left me a fraction of a bit apprehensive at first, but it won me over by the end.

Thanks, in no small part, to the performers themselves.

As I’ve somehow breached the topic of performance evaluation, let me begin by saying that no one else in the cast gave as much passion and truth to his or her performance as Carla Guevara-Laforteza – the Miss Saigon alum who was undeniably the biggest star of that matinee.

In her comeback turn as Maureen, a role famously originated by Idina Menzel of Wicked and Glee fame, Guevara-Laforteza simply raised the bar for local theater, demonstrating what a true artist of the stage really is. I’d probably be right to say that her Over the Moon was the highlight of both acts combined, what with the sing-speak monologue delivered with originality and fervor like never before seen onstage, and with crystal-clear vocals to boot. Those more acquainted with Menzel’s work would be quick to draw a comparison between the two, perhaps even equate one with the other. In this, I shake my head in vehement disagreement. Guevara-Laforteza wasn’t trailing after someone else’s shadow; she was holding her own, playing the role as if it’s being played for the first time, in the end owning it in her own stellar way.

Then, there’s the role played by two actresses who are both not exactly the type that theater traditionalists would expect to see singing and acting onstage. In fact, the role of Mimi Marquez is actually the one that I most ‘feared’ for, simply because the ladies who won the part are TV, film, and mainstream music mainstays – in other words, a tiny bit stunt cast.

Instead, Ciara Sotto, our HIV-afflicted dancer for the afternoon, proved that there’s always something to be found in new talent. I’m not saying that her performance was perfect – because it wasn’t. Most notably, her singing in Out Tonight wasn’t exactly the best version we’ve heard, thanks to some notes that were oddly belted out and some that plainly missed the spot (though she did get the acting and dancing parts). Without You, though silkily sung, isn’t just any plain love song; it’s supposed to be driven by its last line: But I die without you. However, for someone who’s only into her second foray in theater and in a singing-acting-and-dancing role at that, I was more than positively surprised by her turn. Her Mimi was sexy and fierce, visibly angry at her plight yet trying her best to put up an untroubled, sensual exterior. But yes, Mimi’s supposed to be sick and an addict, not gorgeous all over.

(Trivia interlude: When Mimi was already supposedly dead, Sotto’s arm was quite obviously stiff – something she should work on. Oh, and she has this Ciara face – a sort of all-in-one facial contortion denoting hurt, anger, sadness.)

I suppose shows with performers who alternate in a single role have foreseen the stakes long before rehearsals began. A one-time audience only gets to see one of the two sharing a role, and how that one fares totally affects the reviews and word-of-mouth endorsements. But Cadiz has lauded both Sheree Bautista (the other Mimi) and Mian Dimacali (the other Maureen) for their work, so that should be a relief for the curious and those who have yet to catch the musical. 

On the rest of the old cast, countless improvements were really observable.

Between roommates Roger and Mark, it was the latter who displayed a more impressive growth in performance. A year ago, Fredison Lo as Mark Cohen failed to make us believe that he was an amateur filmmaker with an invisible load on his back and a whole lot more of stuff bugging him day in and out. In this third run, Lo’s finally got it: Mark’s external penchant for simplicity and living in the background, and his internal struggle to find his place and make his mark. On the other hand, Gian Magdangal’s Roger is now more pained, more tired with life, struggling all the more to get on. Both were vocally outstanding.

Like Guevara-Laforteza, OJ Mariano once again made his presence in the show a gem. His Collins displayed the most natural character transformation from love to loss, from joy to despair. If, until last year, he never had a taste of performing onstage, then his acting and singing did not betray that fact (one would think he was trained to play the role). In contrast, Job Bautista totally delivered – but only in the acting arena (as the cross-dressing Angel, he was a natural); his vocals, it seemed, weren’t in top form, or judging from the previous year, have somehow deteriorated. In Today 4 U, Angel’s ultimate talent number, the moves definitely trumped the voice. And as Joanne and Benny, respectively, Jenny Villegas and Lorenz Martinez did what they could with the least showy main roles.

Now for a musical like Rent, excellence can never be achieved without a good ensemble. If there’s one major observation in terms of acting that I had with this show, it’s that the ensemble members now have more well-developed characters, one-sided though they may be. In particular, Peachy Atilano (squeaky and simply adorable), Johann dela Fuente (those who caught last October’s The Wedding Singer would think he’s having lots of fun with his make-up-heavy characters), and newcomer Pam Imperial (with just as exquisite a voice as the best Seasons of Love soloists worldwide) caught my eye. Interestingly enough, where Atilano was all rays of sunshine, Imperial was as gloomy as can be. The rest played angry and full-to-the-brim with as much zest as one could summon.

On the technical affairs of the matter, much praise is also in order. The choreography, in particular, brims with lots of originality, from the opening number Rent to the hullabaloo of Christmas Bells to La Vie Boheme (taking bits of inspiration from a Da Vinci masterpiece). Angel’s death was another outstanding piece of work, something that should be immortalized in the annals of the local Broadway stage: Collins stands center stage, weeping and clutching the clothes that are now his only connection to his love. His friends take turns to eulogize the death. Angel, for his part, ascends the stairs, a bright light illuminating the stillness, a trail of white cloth sweeping his traces from behind. Captivating bordering on mystical would be a perfect description for it (though yes, it reminded me of Grizabella’s ascent to the Heaviside Layer in Cats).

Where the production falls the hardest, then, is in the sound. The Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium exudes intimacy and coziness, but really now, can’t they fix and improve the sound system? Glaring static marred otherwise mellifluous musical numbers, most notably Take Me or Leave Me (the lesbian break-up anthem by Joanne and Maureen). Other times, the band drowned out the singers, and still, there were times when I couldn’t understand what the actors were saying. Whether it’s their diction or the system that went astray, improvement has to be made in this arena. After a year, I have to say that much of Happy New Year and many a spoken line in the latter half of La Vie Boheme A still remain incomprehensible.

So, this 9 Works Theatrical production’s managed to conquer the local stage three times in just a year, often times to packed houses. There must be something that’s drawing audiences to the theater. When it started out last year, Rent was all about being bohemian, about celebration, about living life to the fullest. Even the programme resembled a painter’s palette. This time, in what the company labels as the ‘farewell run’, there’s a darker soul coursing through Larson’s masterpiece. The spirit is weary from all the jazz that everyone’s throwing at everybody else. Roger and the gang (and yes, that includes a whole lot more people than just the denizens of Avenue B) are just tired, it’s driving them mad. After all, no day but today – meaning, you might die any time now, which simply doesn’t work out for most.

After over two hours comes the show’s only real take at genuine, untainted hopefulness, when another cycle in the lives of its characters unfolds. Angel’s dead, Mimi’s returned to life, the guys have cash to spare, and everyone’s lived to see another year pass. When Mark starts singing those soulful lyrics: There is no future, there is no past…, that’s the only time in the entirety of the story that the characters finally burst into smiles unstained by trouble, undaunted by the thought of tomorrow.

So, who’s up for another run? Larson and the entire world of Rent would find it ironic not to have one.

*PHOTOS FROM: http://www.ourawesomeplanet.com


kay said...

Makes me want to watch this again with Ciara and the new Maureen ...

gibbs cadiz said...

thank you for the mention. :) more than that, however, i have to tell you--your writing's first-rate, and your insights even more so. do continue to tell it like it is. you're in my regular reading list now. :)


You're welcome, and thank you for the kind words Gibbs. =)) But I have to say that, for someone who regularly visits your blog, your presence here alone is honor enough. =D Definitely won't stop writing anytime soon.


Kay, I'd like that too (Sheree and Mian for me), if only the tickets aren't that expensive (at least, compared to the usual prices).

watchplays said...

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Contact us now and get discounts! =)