What happens in Vegas does not always stay in Vegas. We’re not talking of hanky-panky, but rather the wild idea of staging an expensive musical production in the grand tradition of the hotels on the Las Vegas Strip—with a Filipino-flavored twist.
It is 5 p.m. on a Thursday at the Newport Performing Arts Theater of Resorts World Manila (RWM). Although still empty, the theater comes alive as Cris Nicolas talks on the mic, barking out instructions to dancers onstage.
“Wider! Spread those legs wider!” says Nicolas, a former member of the Powerdance and a multitasking artist who not only writes, directs, choreographs and designs the show, but acts in it as well.
There is urgency to his voice. Nicolas used to watch two shows a night when visiting Vegas, which he said was an “eye-opener” for him to create something similarly spectacular for the Manila crowd.
Not far from the stage sits Pocholo Mallilin, the show’s producer whom Nicolas calls “my lifetime partner,” quietly observing the pickup rehearsals for the production originally called “Follies de Mwah,” but later renamed as “The Club Mwah Show”—a Vegas-inspired musical-comedy revue featuring an all-Pinoy cast of gay performers.
“This is such a big challenge to us,” Mallilin tells the Inquirer, “because the stage is so big we had to triple everything.”
He means tripling the production requirements, including the talent fees of performers. He points out that at Club Mwah—the place he and Nicolas built nine years ago in Mandaluyong where the show was born—an audience of 300 was enough to fill its capacity. But at RWM, which seats 1,500, the production has been losing money since its run started last October.
Mallilin recalls that the idea of bringing Club Mwah’s popular show to RWM was actually broached to him by Andrew Tan, the head of Megaworld Corp., whose holding company, the Alliance Global Group, owns and operates RWM.
“Andrew was amazed when he saw the show at Club Mwah,” says Mallilin. “He was also surprised to learn that Cris did the job of eight people in putting together the show.”
RWM offered free use of its theater, explains Mallilin, “but we had to do everything else, including marketing the show. Unfortunately, the shows were all on weekdays (Monday to Wednesday), which couldn’t bring in an audience big enough to cover expenses.”
Mallilin says he and Nicolas had no choice but to end its run tonight because it has cost them a fortune.
Backstage, the 35 cast members, majority of whom are proudly gay, are busy putting on makeup. They like to be called by their stage names.
Aya, who has been working at Club Mwah for the past six years, says most of them used to have lucrative contracts as “variety show” performers in Japan.
“The money I send my family is from tips alone,” Aya says. “My salary is left untouched and I only get it when I go home to the Philippines after every six months.”
However, Aya says that the good times came to a halt in 2005 when the Philippine government, allegedly under pressure from a superpower, was forced to stop sending entertainers to Japan.
Aya and the rest of the “girls” say that they do miss working in Japan.
“I’m treated like a princess there,” says Dang.
“My suitors woo me with gifts,” swears Naomi.
“In Japan, there’s no discrimination against gays. We’re free to act as ourselves,” relates Minami, who says the stage moniker means “south” in the Japanese language.
Another performer, Jazz, enters the room and starts bantering with the group. They all laugh like they’re the happiest people on earth. They get surprised when Cheenee, another Club Mwah regular performer who’s on leave, greets them at the door.
According to Cheenee, who’s had jobs as a writer for Manila FM station Monster Radio RX 93.1 and in a computer database company, gay performers were a big hit in Japan because they introduced something exciting to that country’s traditional, laid-back and homogenous culture.
The curtain rises to the incessant beat of Madonna’s “Vogue,” with the ruins of the Roman empire in digitally enhanced visuals as backdrop. Dancing to the music is a group of performers acting as servants of the lead—who’s dressed like a queen lip-synching to the song’s lyrics. The dancers crowd around the “queen” for a few seconds before the “twist,” in which she emerges in an entirely different, contemporary costume as pop star in concert.
Then the scene changes to that of “Sound of Music,” where a couple playing Maria and Captain von Trapp are shown getting married. When “Do-Re-Mi” is sung by kids in the cast as the Von Trapp children, another performer as Maria lets out a loud fart—the twist that has the audience chuckling.
Nicolas appears on the third number as Patti LaBelle, in a medley of songs which are lip-synched but look so genuinely sung live, from the effort to reach the high notes down to the pauses to catch the breath.
Snippets from various scenes in other stage musicals including “Phantom of the Opera” unfold, each of them ending in an unexpected, playful gimmick that has become the Mwah trademark.
But the most striking element, aside from the performers’ laudable skills, is the quality of the costumes. In one “Samba” segment, the dancers shake their hips while wearing plumes that look straight out of the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
“Those feathers are imported,” says Nicolas. “My wish is to have a more fabulous show complete with gymnasts and acrobats…with somebody to help finance it.”
At curtain call, Mallilin announces that the show will move back to its home in Mandaluyong.
He calls out Washington SyCip, the tycoon who’s an avid supporter of the arts. Onstage, SyCip quips: “I’m 91 and still surviving because of Club Mwah.”