Tuesday, February 14, 2012

You're a Brilliant Dog, Snoopy!

It is suppertime, and Snoopy is very, very hungry. But instead of eating in silence after his master Charlie Brown has filled his dog bowl and left, Snoopy clambers atop his dog house, donning a top hat and grabbing a walking stick in the process, and breaks into boisterous song and dance on his favourite part of day, a prayer-before-the-meal of smooth, jazzy rhythms that gradually swell into big, bursting melodies and lyrics that go, "Bring on the soup dish, bring on the cup/ Bring on the bacon and fill me up/ ‘Cause it’s… suppertime."

Soon, his human friends join him, clad in blue robes and clutching tambourines, swaying and singing in the backdrop as those high-belting African-American gospel singers in the movies have done for decades.

Consider this, the aptly titled “Suppertime”, the eleven o'clock number of 9 Works Theatrical’s fifth musical production (seventh, if you count two reruns of Rent), a highly entertaining if relatively lightweight You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, whose 1999 Broadway revival undeniably made a star out of Kristin Chenoweth.

Snoopy here is played by Lorenz Martinez, who, among other credits, is the youngest actor ever to have played The Engineer in Miss Saigon. Though definitely not yet a household theatre name hereabouts, this spirited, perfectly comical performance as the eternal Charles Schultz beagle should widen his audience.

That’s one way to put it for this production of the small-scale Clark Gesner musical comedy based on Schultz’s Peanuts denizens. Because from another perspective, the other performances simply pale in comparison to the amount of consistency or clarity that Martinez puts into his character.

That’s not to say they don’t ever rise to some level past satisfactory at some point in the show; it’s just that, well, Snoopy owns this one. For someone whose brand of humour is more Sex in the City or God of Carnage, this dog, or the brilliant actor behind it, might just be the one reason to get through those two hours in the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium.   

With the way this musical is structured, though, even the most ‘adult’ of brains would end up being somehow drawn to it. The plot is, to put it bluntly, four weeks' worth of your local daily's Peanuts glued end-to-end - and viola, a sensible story it makes!

At its very core are six characters that would certainly have Nietzsche and Sartre jumping up and down their seats. Kids both physically and behaviourally, they roam the stage constantly knocking their heads off, looking at the state of life and their lives from every possible angle in this pastiche of quips and quotable quotes that those ‘mature’ enough would easily dismiss as a plethora of juvenile concerns.

There’s the thumb-sucking Linus, whose one biggest contribution to the world as a Schultz creation is probably the popularization of the term ‘security blanket’. Here, he is convincingly played by Franco Laurel, and as the highly articulate resident academic, his is perhaps the performance closest to Martinez’s level.

Though his fine tenor, last seen in his ‘Anthony’ in Repertory Philippines’ latest Sweeney Todd, is evidently not designed for those lower notes in “My Blanket and Me,” Laurel nevertheless infuses his Linus with just the right amounts of little-boy charm and know-it-all eagerness to make him both lovable and worth rooting for.

Never mind that this Linus is also one who, many times, threatens to (but thankfully, does not) tip the balance towards sheer, hair-tingling awkwardness while dancing a fusion of tango and ballet with his blanket in that big solo of his.

Robbie Guevara as the title character is just as equally dependable. Bald and eternally clad in sunshine-yellow, 9 Works’ resident director churns out a sympathetic Charlie Brown whose subtlety and facial expressions are undeniably his greatest assets.

At the beginning, Linus’s sister Lucy remarks to Charlie, “Yours is the perfect example of a failure face” - and failure it is, superficially written by a slight bend of the brow or curl of the lip. This must be what "facial comedy" means, and Guevara proves himself a master of that art.

But for those hungry for more big production numbers, look to Tonipet Gaba’s Schroeder – at times dangerously coming off as too structured and rehearsed – offering a suave “Beethoven Day,”an anthem to the German composer on whom his piano-playing character obsesses upon.

Or the Act-I ender “The Book Report,” though marred by a few incoherent spots as the voices join together blurting out varying lyrics; or “Happiness,” the musical’s capable match to, say, Spring Awakening’s “Song of Purple Summer,” or Next to Normal’s “Light” – and performed most sincerely and illusion-free, too.   

What’s not so crystal-clear for this cast of six, however, are the two women: Sweet Plantado-Tiongson as a relatively tame and less unpredictable Sally Brown, and Carla Guevara-Laforteza playing an appropriately crabby and forceful Lucy, if only a tad too loud in a few places.

But the fault, it must be noted, is inherent in their characters or how the book says they should be played. Apparently, mimicking little girls’ voices takes more than just two performances and a media preview to get right, especially when one gets to the singing part.

For while Plantado-Tiongson has long been the dependable lead singer of The CompanY, and Guevara-Laforteza has breezed through Miss Saigon and 9 Works’ Rent with a standout Maureen Johnson, here, their vocal cords and diaphragms can only do so much with the singing style expressly captured by the Filipino ‘ipit’ – clipped, caught in between.

Sally Brown’s “My New Philosophy” never really gets to soar to those prized lofty heights, while Lucy just plain thins out in her high notes, and gets too shrill for comfort one too many times in her spoken parts.

But for a musical comedy that requires swift scene changes and brief, witty dialogue delivered as how comic strips must be like acted out, this production is fairly consistent.

Thus, this early, applause must already be given to Director Michael Williams for keeping the cast constantly paced and thoroughly cohesive – and more importantly, for guiding the production to achieve a child-like buoyancy that the material demands.

Charlie Brown runs for three more weekends, and when one finally gets the chance to see it, it is of prime importance that one does not expect a saga of vocal cord-defying show tune after show tune (like Rent) or big song-and-dance moments interwoven with dialogue (as in Sweet Charity).

This is a musical created from the eyes of a ten-year-old or a ten-year-old at heart, whose main goal is to display how children would think intelligently, not to mock their level of intelligence.

Case and point: Guevara-Laforteza’s Lucy adroitly delivering a self-appropriated monologue on creating her own ‘queendom’, with a hilarious reference (if you’re sharp) to Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts in the bag.

More than anything, this production knows that what it must foremost achieve is keep the viewer smiling or snickering or roaring with laughter in remembrance of a not-so-distant childhood. On those grounds, at least, 9 Works’ Charlie Brown fully understands itself and is one to be considered a good show.  

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The remaining shows of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown are at 3:30PM on Feb 19 & 25 and Mar 3, and at 8PM on Feb 18 & 25 and Mar 2 & 3. It runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City. For tickets and more information, visit the company's website at 9workstheatrical.com.  

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