Theaterbatoring "Sweet Charity" and "Noli Me Tangere"

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A few months ago, I was able to write about Tanghalang Pilipino's line-up for its 2011-2012 season.  I recently caught its season opener "Noli Me Tangere" a week or two after I caught 9 Works Theatrical's "Sweet Charity."

thoughts on "sweet charity" and "noli me tangere"
by walter ang
aug 30, 2011

i caught 9 works theatrical's "sweet charity" and tanghalang pilipino's staging of the lumbera-cayabyab musical "noli me tangere."  i don't normally do combo-reviews, that is, talking about wo or more shows in one piece, but what the hey, it's interesting to me that both materials have strange(!) plot structures and auteur-ish (hmm!) provenance. whaaat?

sweet charity
this was my first 9 works theatrical production.  it was a fun show. the plot was weird in that the entire first act seemed like a throwaway, what with charity's one-night encounter with a film-star that didn't really make any sense, that didn't really push the story forward anyway, and that just made the first act seem to drag on forever.

one assumes that, given the provenance of this musical (as wikipedia puts it "conceived, directed and choreographed by bob fosse"), the plot, as stringy as it is, is most likely there just to frame the dance numbers. (auteur alert!)

what was good to see was that, despite this weird plot structure, the cast was game.

actors
nikki gil was a sprightly, winsome charity; what vitamins does she take? she's got stamina, this one. she's singing and dancing onstage almost the entire two hours of the production! gil has already made her stamp as a musical leading lady after her turn as elle woods in atlantis production's 2009 staging of "legally blonde." and yes, she's got the looks and charisma for it.

and while her turn as charity showcases even more of her skills, a bit of her elle woods would creep up once in a while.  someone should cast her in a dramatic musical role to stretch and further hone her acting muscles. something tragic with lots of repressed longing, maybe like fosca in sondheim's "passion."

kris lawrence was as a surprise as oliver lindquist (he's got comedic timing, who knew?); oj mariano had presence (and not just because he towers over everyone else, he can sing, this one).

ciara sotto-ocaner as helene was a revelation.  she's hilarious!  her screeching, high-volume voice initially grated on the ears, until you realize she's taken her role and just flew with it.  she played a palengkerang talakera and she wanted you to know it.  when she does a split onstage in the second act; it's hokey, yes; but also so in character that you just have to cheer her on.

sets
some of the sets were a bit too far upstage, like when charity and oscar were stuck in an elevator, and later, in a ferris wheel.

dance numbers
and the dance numbers are fun, all things considered.  the dancing is almost there. this is bob fossey choreography, and you can tell that the cast aren't trained dancers, nonetheless, they power through the pieces.

the rich man's frug number was fun and scary. fun because of the mod costumes, of seeing fossey choreography onstage, of the groovy music; scary because of the varying heights of the cast and the paunches!

okay, i'm all for color-blind and height-blind casting, these are things that can be worked out with some judicious blocking.  but with this number, you have proof that paunch-blind casting does not always work onstage. a quick google search reveals a youtube clip from the movie version and i'm glad to see the local production didn't copy the costumes from the movie; however, for this particular dance number, perhaps coats on the men might have given a better silhouette, given the lines of the choreography. either that or spanx for men might be in order.

let's point out right away that we are not being overly critical here of the human bodies we see onstage--after all, some sense of physical uniformity for the ensemble is still paramount in creating pictures on stage. nonetheless, for this particular production, it is these human "flaws" and complicit acceptance that this isn't an exact fosse clone that seem to help create an endearing show.

noli me tangere
ordinarily, i wouldn't mention previous stagings of a show because there is always an internal goal to appreciate, digest, assess and evaluate a show on its own merits. more so in this case since i've not seen any of them anyway, but then, there have been publicity materials, media interviews and director's notes that talk of audie gemora's stripped-down, straightforward staging of the material versus nonon padilla's symbolism-filled, stylized staging. (auteur alert!)

the die is cast! the assumption is that this staging has been crafted from the very beginning with an intertwined reaction of sorts, an "anti-direction" in relation to a previous direction.  it becomes part of the audience gaze (for those of us who read the programme notes, at least, kekeke) to compare this staging with an unseen "symbolism-filled" staging.  it's like trying to not think of a pink elephant with a polka-dot bowtie!

[and maybe a whole generation of audiences have no idea who nonon padilla is anymore since he's not staged anything in years save for the 2009 staging of peta's "saan ba tayo ihahatid ng disyembre," but i saw many of his productions for tp in the late 90s and early 00s. and i've seen his staging of "fili" (those giant clock gears!). so, yes, padilla as auteur of the lumbera-cayabyab rizal-novels musicals is sorta kinda ingrained in my brain, and therefore, part of my gaze, kekeke.]

singing, lighting
all the actors sang beautifully. especially the classically-trained singers like al gatmaitan (padre salvi), red nuestro (kapitan tiago) and ring antonio (doña victorina).

katsch katoy had some beautifully rendered lighting schemes.

the plot
the plot is weird in the sense that the structure of the book* is also weird. the book has these action-filled chapters mixed up with chapters that are for pure contemplation of rizal's ideas, metaphors and symbolisms.

(*yes, i've been reading the book, kekeke. as part of my personal participation in the 150th birth anniversary of rizal's birth, i've been trying to plow through the lacson-locsin english translations of "noli" and "fili." i wanted to finish "noli" before i saw this production, but, alas, i failed! i'd only gotten to chapter 35 by the time i saw the production.)

sequence in the structure
not having seen any of the previous stagings (and not having finished my re-reading of the book yet, kekeke), i can't say if the adjustments made by gemora and dramaturg rody vera in creating bridge scenes to highlight "the letters (of the lead characters) angle" makes the material any tighter.

but as it is, the material (just like the book) is (still) episodic; momentum fizzles often.  the musical's sequencing hews too faithfully to the book's chronology to make it move appropriately.

mxstxrbatory music
it does not help that cayabyab's music style for this musical, though it sounds good, does not build, does not climax, does not end with flourishes--it's all  a series of melodies that don't sound like they're going anywhere.

in colloquial theater/advertising/marketing-speak, this is what we call "mxstxrbatory," (and i can't spell it out here because of these crawling robot censors that could shut down my blog if i did, kekeke), which basically means you're just going on and on with/to no end in sight, kekeke.

straightforward versus stylized
gemora's "straightforward staging," given the episodic structure of the material, given the circuitous music, ended up being too straightforward--because as these scenes trudge from one to another, unfurling the book chapter by chapter, we're led to ask "how would a stylized, symbolic staging bear out? maybe a stylized scene here or a symbol there would perk things up and move things along?"

and if it's a straightforward staging, why does padre salvi have three ninja-type, macbeth-ish weird-sisters matrons following him around?

plots and triangles
the major "action" plot points are there, from the opening dinner party, to the lovers' conversations, etc.  the "added" action plot points are there, too: the discovery of letters, the confrontations about letters, etc. but then, the "contemplative" plot points (from the book) seem out of place (and out of sequence) onstage.

when the espadaña couple comes out with their rousing song (and it's a funny, perky number), it's so out of place.  like, "where did they come from and what are they doing in this musical?"

and so just like "sweet charity," we're dealing with another case of weird plot structure!

if the story of sisa and her two sons are "backgrounded" as a subplot to the crisostomo ibarra-maria clara de los santos-padre salvi love/lust triangle, then how come the espadaña couple aren't backgrounded as well? if they're comic relief, should their big number come out so late in the production (faithfully following the book's sequence of events)?

against the foregrounded love/lust triangle plot, do we still need to see a whole song number by kapitan tiago about his collection of saint statues/figurines? and in the second act, too! when all we want is for that damned block to fall on ibarra already.

symbolic set design
if the staging is "straightforward" then the set is definitely "symbolic," and so right away, there is a visual incongruency. does this kind of set design work in context with/in relation to the material/the staging?

mio infante's expansive flight of stairs is sculptural, solid and a visual showcase. and yes, there are layers of symbolism: layers of society and all that.

but as part of the fabric of the staging/story, we are led to ask, "stairs as leading to what?" or is that the point? to show the audience that (to paraphrase a line from the movie "joy luck club") the characters in this musical, and of course, symbolic of filipinos as a people, are always going up and going down, but always in the same place? not really getting anywhere?

his three-walled enclosure with windows (that reminds me of the walls-with-windows in tanya mccallinsimilar's set design of théâtre du châtelet's staging of "sweeny todd") was, according to my seatmate g.c., symbolic of the characters being enclosed/entrapped.  hmmm. my reaction was: "why is this musical set inside a warehouse?" kekeke!

What do you think of these productions? Share your comments.

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