National Artist for Literature F. Sionil José, in a recent column, called it “the ancient problems of our theater”—the lack of resources, say, and more gravely, the continuing lack of audiences, which was the prevalent lament during the sparsely populated National Theater Festival held in November this year at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The NTF wasn’t the only casualty of the public indifference. Its crown jewel, Mario O’Hara’s “Stageshow,” the inaugural production of the festival, also suffered through an anemic run in terms of audience attendance.
And yet the year drove home the point more than ever that there is an audience out there for theater—perhaps not just the kind that would go out of its way to patronize the season offerings of Tanghalang Pilipino (producer of “Stageshow”) and similar companies.
The international touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera,” after all, attracted full-house crowds throughout its three-month extended run. And its producers now consider Manila a viable market to sustain at least two big-ticket productions a year from its roster of international blockbuster shows. (Before “Phantom,” there was “Mamma Mia!”, “The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber” and “Cats.” Up next, from the grapevine: “Dirty Dancing” in 2013, “Wicked” in 2014?)
Even the movie studios appear to be cashing in on an improving theater market. Viva has announced a partnership with Atlantis Productions to produce a season of musicals distinct from Atlantis’ own offerings (though how distinct is the question—the lineups bared so far still predictably consist of Broadway imports). And ABS-CBN is reportedly considering a similar move.
Which should occasion the rather alarming thought that the industry might be overrun by film and TV stars and starlets—the price to pay for more mass-based patronage, perhaps?
But this year, too, showed again that, done right, borrowing celebrities could work, in terms of both luring new fans and enthusiasts to the theater, and developing fresh talent for it. Three of the brightest performances this year were by young TV/film actors making their debut in professional theater—Edgar Allan Guzman in Peta’s “Bona”; Nadine Samonte in Dulaang UP’s “Ang Tagak”; and Tom Rodriguez in Atlantis’ “Disney’s Aladdin.”
Last year we saw 68 big and small productions; this year that number dropped to 62—and that already included Ballet Philippines’ rousing revival of “Rama, Hari,” which, along with the regional offerings at the NTF, somewhat righted the balance for original Filipino productions (and not merely foreign musicals, the common lot on Manila stages in 2012) by drawing cheering crowds to its 11-show run at CCP.
Though we’re not including “Rama, Hari” in our roundup below of the best musicals for the year (it being a hybrid, more dance than book musical), let it be said that the evergreen work of Alice Reyes (dance), Ryan Cayabyab (music) and National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera (lyrics) featured five of the year’s outstanding vocal performances: OJ Mariano, Kalila Aguilos, Christian Rey Marbella, Lani Ligot and Noel Rayos.
By the light of their excellent work, and those of others we propose below as the best of Manila theater in 2012, we’d like to think there remains much to hope for and look forward to.
Honorable Mentions: “Dula Ta” (Mindanao State University Kabpapagariya Ensemble; Romeo Narvaez, director); “Magkano” (Riley Palanca, playwright; Ric Salcedo, dir.); “Ang Sistema ni Propesor Tuko” (Al Santos; Richard de Guzman, dir.)
Best Play (Full-Length/ Non-Filipino material)
“The Seagull” (Anton Chekhov, English translation by Tom Stoppard; Tony Mabesa, dir.). Not a seamless production by any stretch, but when this thoughtful, conscientious take on Chekhov’s masterwork hit its stride, the stage all but shimmered with pathos, humor and aching humanity. Ana Abad Santos was an exceptional Arkadina (while the Filipino version featured the beguiling stage debut of TV star Nadine Samonte as Nina).
Honorable Mentions: “Mind’s Eye” (Paul Fleischman; Jaime del Mundo, dir.); “Fireflies” (Suzue Toshiro, English translation by David Goodman; Ricky Abad and BJ Crisostomo, dirs.); “God of Carnage” (Yasmina Reza; Bobby Garcia, dir.); “The Woman in Black” (Stephen Mallatratt; William Elvin Manzano, dir.); “Next Fall” (Geoffrey Nauffts; Audie Gemora, dir.)
Best Play (Full-Length/ Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation)
“Battalia Royale” (Sipat Lawin Ensemble with David Finnigan, Jordan Prosser, Sam Burns-Warr and Georgie McAuley, loosely adapted from Koushun Takami’s novel “Battle Royale”; JK Anicoche, dir.). A mind-blowing immersive experience that attempted to meld theater and live video game, to roaring approval from its mostly young audiences. Certainly not for the conventional-minded or faint-hearted, but it may point the way toward theater that engages the young on their own terms. Mark our words: For its whipsmart fearlessness, the Sipat Lawin Ensemble (composed of alumni of Philippine High School for the Arts) represents robust new hope for local theater.
Honorable Mentions: “Ang Tagak” (Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull”, Filipino translation by Rolando Tinio; Tony Mabesa, dir.)
Edgar Allan Guzman (“Bona”). In a play that abandoned its spare filmic origins to embrace a bloated, maximalist approach to storytelling and character development (built on the undeniable star wattage of its lead actor, Eugene Domingo), Guzman’s instinctively human-scaled performance proved to be the most compelling. May this stage natural’s auspicious debut lure him away every now and then from TV/movie work to do more theater.
Honorable Mentions: Jeremy Domingo (“The Woman in Black”); Leo Rialp (“Forsaken House”); Adrian Pang (“God of Carnage”); Bart Guingona and Matt Bianco (“Next Fall”); Arnell Ignacio (“Sayaw ng mga SENIORita”); Sandino Martin and Noel Escondo (“Magkano”); Dante Balois (“Pagsubli”)
Joy Virata (“Mind’s Eye”). In the words of ABS-CBNews.com’s Vladimir Bunoan: “Virata has never been this effective as an actress … and gave probably the performance of her life.” We can do away with “probably.” Virata, all of 77, was amazing in an extraordinarily taxing role, hitting all the right spots to lift the play up from cloyingly chatty to movingly transcendent.
Honorable Mentions: Ana Abad Santos (“The Seagull”); Nadine Samonte (“Ang Tagak”); Jenny Jamora (“Mind’s Eye”); Frances Makil-Ignacio (“Ang Tagak”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“God of Carnage”); Thea Yrastorza (“Battalia Royale”); Sherry Lara (“Isa Pang Soap Opera”); Che Ramos (“Pagsubli”)
Best Featured Actor-Play
Juliene Mendoza (“Bona”). The mark of a good actor—Mendoza had the thankless job of uttering some of the hoariest lines in the play, but somehow he made every single one of them sing, or at least throb with endearing plausibility. Like Guzman’s, his rigorously unfussy scenes were a breath of fresh air every time.
Honorable mentions: Leo Rialp (“The Seagull”); Niccolo Manahan (“Next Fall”); Jelson Bay (“Symposium”); Nor Domingo and Garry Lim (“Haring Lear”)
Best Featured Actress-Play
Honorable Mention: Olive Nieto (“Bona”); Cris Villonco (“Leading Ladies”)
“The King and I” (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; Freddie Santos, dir.). Conventional wisdom had long held that local productions of musical (invariably Broadway) material brimmed with A-grade Filipino talent, but production values were no match to the foreign franchise. Resorts World Manila might be changing that perception for good. Its take on “The King and I” is truly world-class in terms of lavishness and spectacle—but, more importantly, is held together by the tight professionalism and polish of Freddie Santos’ direction.
Honorable Mentions: “Jekyll and Hyde” (music by Frank Wildhorn, lyrics by Leslie Bricusse; Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, dir.); “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” (music and lyrics by Charles Gesner and Andrew Lippa; Michael Williams, dir.); “Forbidden Broadway” (script by Gerard Alessandrini; Joel Trinidad, dir.); “Rock of Ages” (book by Chris D’Arienzo; Bobby Garcia, dir.)
Best Musical (Original Filipino Material or Filipino Adaptation)
“Stageshow” (script by Mario O’Hara; directed by Chris Millado). Perhaps the most significant theatrical work to emerge of late, not only because it affirms O’Hara’s place in the pantheon of Filipino creative colossi, but also because, as we asserted in our review, “it helps map out a crucial lost era in the history of Filipino pop culture, and fills a gap in our understanding of a fundamental part of ourselves—what makes us the Scheherazades of the world, singing and dancing for our lives in the face of death and destruction.”
Honorable mention: “Rivalry: Ateneo-La Salle, The Musical” (music by Ed Gatchalian, lyrics by Joel Trinidad; Jaime del Mundo, dir.)
Nonie Buencamino (“Stageshow”). His character, as written, wasn’t even front and center of the show, often disappearing from the action for long stretches and quite broadly sketched. But as Buencamino played him, the part of the charming, hard-living roué-bandleader appeared to grow before our eyes, becoming a dreamy, luminous embodiment of the raunchy passion coursing through O’Hara’s paean to a vanished art form.
Honorable Mentions: Michael Williams (“Jekyll and Hyde”); Bo Cerrudo (“The King and I”); Tom Rodriguez (“Disney’s Aladdin”); Jett Pangan (“Rock of Ages”); Tonipet Gaba (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”); Reb Atadero (“Bare”); Lorenz Martinez (“Forbidden Broadway”)
Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino (“Stageshow”). A tour-de-force performance that, in sheer range alone, is untouchable by anyone in this or perhaps any other year. The Job-like part of the singing-dancing-wisecracking-self-sacrificing Ester is simply a gold standard for any actress, and here, no doubt helped along by her onstage chemistry with husband Nonie, but certainly also by dint of her own formidable chops, Centenera-Buencamino notched another high point in her already much-garlanded career.
Honorable Mentions: Kalila Aguilos (“Jekyll and Hyde”); Liesl Batucan (“Stageshow”); Sheila Valderrama (“The King and I”); Cris Villonco (“Walang Sugat”); Liesl Batucan (“Forbidden Broadway”); Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”); Athena Tibi (“Rivalry: Ateneo-La Salle, The Musical”)
Best Featured Actor-Musical
Mig Ayesa (“Rock of Ages”). What a voice, and what a presence. When that ultra-lean rockstar frame swaggered into the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium stage—despite the fact that the role was in fact a minor one (puffed up in the movie version only to accommodate Tom Cruise)—Ayesa’s romp of a performance, spiky yet hilarious, showed his Filipino compatriots why he thoroughly owned this part on Broadway: Stacee Jaxx seemed like second skin to the man.
Honorable Mentions: Junix Inocian (“Jekyll and Hyde”); Lorenz Martinez (“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown”); Rody Vera (“Stageshow”); Anton Posadas (“The King and I”); Raul Montesa (“Disney’s Aladdin”); Noel Trinidad and Raymund Concepcion (“Rivalry: Ateneo-La Salle, The Musical”)
Best Featured Actress-Musical
Gina Respall (“The King and I”). Drop-dead gorgeous singing that pays full homage to the transporting musical landscape created by Rodgers and Hammerstein in this classic work. Her “Something Wonderful,” first heard at the West End where Respall played Lady Thiang to such eminent Annas as Elaine Paige and Marti Webb, is a ringing highlight of the show (its run, by the way, now extended until May 2013, at Resorts World Manila’s Newport Performing Arts Theater).
Honorable Mentions: Cherie Gil (“Nine”); Cris Villonco (“Jekyll and Hyde”); Aiza Seguerra (“Rock of Ages”); Angelina Kanapi and Mae Paner (“Stageshow”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Carla Guevara-Laforteza (“Nine”); Geraldine Pancho (“Duha ka Alimpo sa Habagat … Bohol 1700”); Apple Chiu (“The King and I”); Sheila Francisco (“Rivalry: Ateneo-La Salle, The Musical”)
Chris Millado (“Stageshow”).
For the marvel that was “Stageshow,” which Millado expertly shepherded to complex, pulsating life, even as it remained a quintessential Mario O’Hara work. Other directors might have opted to put their own idiosyncratic stamp on the material (O’Hara died in June this year before the production was put together). Here, as in “Insiang” in 2007, also an O’Hara-Millado collaboration, the directorial instinct seemed a becoming self-effacement, to let the work speak for itself—in both cases, but especially in “Stageshow,” to definitively memorable results.
Honorable Mentions: Ricky Abad and BJ Crisostomo (“Fireflies”); Tony Mabesa (“The Seagull”); Freddie Santos (“The King and I”); Jaime del Mundo (“Mind’s Eye”); Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“Jekyll and Hyde”); JK Anicoche (“Battalia Royale”); William Elvin Manzano (“The Woman in Black”)
Artistic and technical standouts
Denisa Reyes’ scintillating choreography for “Stageshow”; Lawyn Cruz’s scenery for “God of Carnage”; Ceejay Javier’s lush-sounding musical direction and orchestration for both “Nine” and “Disney’s Aladdin”; Jonjon Villareal’s lighting for “Fireflies”; Raven Ong’s costumes for “Jekyll and Hyde”; Meliton Roxas Jr.’s lighting for “The Woman in Black”; Aksana Sidarava’s costumes and Jo Tecson’s opulent set design for “The King and I”; Paolo Infante’s choreography for “Disney’s Camp Rock: The Musical,” easily the year’s most explosive dancing in a new work; Lex Marcos’ set and lights, Don Salubayba’s visual design, and Leeroy New’s costumes for “Umaaraw, Umuulan, Kinakasal ang Tikbalang,” already cited here last year but rendered even more full-scale elaborate with the play’s transfer this year to the bigger Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater; and another Lex Marcos work, his austerely beautiful set for “Mind’s Eye.”