Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Humor lost in musical adaption

Bring theater to the crowd and not the other way around. That was the goal of 9 Works Theatrical and Globe when they presented Green Day’s American Idiot at the Globe Iconic Store in June. The punk rock band’s hits indeed captured the attention of passers-by, while the unroofed amphitheater allowed them a peep at the show. This December, the two companies are teaming up again to bring A Christmas Carol to everyone, non-ticket holders included.

The two musicals are appealing in very distinct ways. The former has pop songs going for it. However thin its plot may be, American Idiot can hold an audience with its music alone. A Christmas Carol, on the other hand, is based on one of the most enduring change-of-heart tales by Charles Dickens.

We’re familiar with the story: Ebenezer Scrooge, an old-aged miserly man, who abhors Christmas — and somehow life as it is — is visited by three spirits, each showing him his past, present, and future. Witnessing the errors of his ways and their consequences, Scrooge wakes on Christmas morning, happy and ready to redeem himself.

That sounded simple, even quite cheesy. But the undeniable charm of the Dickens’ novella lies in its narrator’s wry and disarming voice. Listen to him describe how dead Marley (Scrooge’s business partner) is:
Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.
And Scrooge’s reaction upon meeting Marley’s ghost:
His body was transparent; so that Scrooge, observing him, and looking through his waistcoat, could see the two buttons on his coat behind.

Scrooge had often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now.
Without an immediate use for narrators, it’s always interesting to see how A Christmas Carol is told in other medium. Film has visual flexibility, and the camera can zoom in on a character to show their hidden emotions. For a stage musical, one may expect clever use of props, detailed costume and make-up and, of course, a memorable score.

What is gained in 9 Works Theatrical’s production of Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens, and Mike Ockrent’s musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol is intimacy. Globe Iconic Store is relatively small, and the stage is extended in the middle, with additional smaller stages in the corners. The audience, only a couple of feet away from the action, are privy to Scrooge’s nightmares — as if they’re dreaming them with him. They are so close to the actors that they’d be able to see a loose thread if there were any. From our vantage point, the designers and make-up artists have done an impeccable job.


Marley’s entrance, where he’s later joined by an ensemble of ghosts, is particularly spooky and awe-inspiring; and it sets the tone of the show: there will be overzealous singing, dancing, and running around the amphitheater from a huge cast. Incidentally, this brand of energy is both the strength and weakness of the performance.

The production numbers are dramatic, yet they fail to bring out the drama within Scrooge. Despite its two-hour run (excluding a 15-minute intermission), the musical feels frantic and clipped that the touching moments tend to drown in the spectacle. It doesn’t help that the noises within (drone of industrial fans, whiz of fog machines) and outside the venue compete with the performers exchanging dialogues.

Scrooge’s transformation from “Bah! Humbug!” to “Hallo!” (which the audience already anticipates) is hardly felt. Other than the reason stated above, the problem is due to a dearth of humor. That ingredient that makes Ebenezer Scrooge, Ebenezer Scrooge and not just another grumpy old man; that makes a very unlikeable character, liked; and that makes what could’ve been a corny and didactic resolution, heart-warming is sorely missing onstage.

In the book’s preface, Dickens wrote that he has endeavored to “raise the Ghost of an Idea” and hopes that it haunts his readers’ houses pleasantly. Safe to say that he got his wish. Since its publication in 1843, A Christmas Carol has lived on that we’re still talking about and reinterpreting it. The musical adaptation will surely arouse curiosity and may send shivers of joy to any spectator, though it’s doubtful that it’ll leave a lasting impression.

—Originally published on GIST

Friday, December 9, 2016

Too sweet

1.

There’s a scene in Annie where the orphan, Annie, billionaire Oliver Warbucks, and President Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet sing Tomorrow at the White House; after which the powerful figures are revived with hope — something sorely missing before the young girl enters the room.

It’s difficult to be sold on that particular scene. Not because such serious characters have burst into song (hey, it’s a musical); but because they’ve gleefully burst into song, suddenly convinced that everything will be fine as the sun comes out tomorrow.

2.
Annie (with book by Thomas Meehan, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Martin Charnin) is set in The Great Depression and revolves around a child’s unwavering search for her parents. One Christmas season, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks scouts for an orphan to spend the holidays with, and Annie — who has been living in an orphanage under the supervision of the always-shouting drunkard Miss Hannigan — is chosen by the billionaire’s secretary, Grace Farrell. The two have been what each other needed: a parental figure for Annie, and a source of familial affection for the hard-working and hardened Warbucks.

The latter does everything to help the former, including offering a hefty sum of money to the couple who can prove that they are the parents of the child. As expected, impostors come in droves, and a pair that almost succeed in fooling everyone are Lily St. Regis and Rooster Hannigan, who is the brother of Miss Hannigan. The trio connive to pull off the ruse and agree to split the reward three-way.

With the aid of the FBI and President Roosevelt, no less, Daddy Warbucks and Annie learn that her real parents have died a long time ago. After the Hannigan siblings and St. Regis are caught, Daddy Warbucks proceeds to adopt Annie and celebrates Christmas with her.

3.

The musical is currently staged by Full House Theater Company and Resorts World Manila under the direction of Michael Stuart Williams. Isabeli Araneta-Elizalde and Krystal Brimmer alternate for the role of Annie, and joining them are Michael De Mesa as Daddy Warbucks and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Miss Hannigan.


The cast play their roles with gusto — which can only do so much to humanize the underdeveloped characters, who sometimes make un-believable decisions. It’s puzzling, for example, how the busy and stressed out Warbucks (he snubs phone calls from heads of state) warms up to Annie the instant they meet. Or why Farrell is so taken by the little girl.

The production could’ve either gone melodramatic or comical in tone but instead it sits comfortably in the middle, that an emotion is barely stirred when a scene seems to call for it. A reason that Warbucks’ big realization about love trumping social influence and material possession isn’t as moving as it ought to be.

4.
One of the more poignant, emotionally charged moments in the musical is courtesy of Lauchengco-Yulo. Her solo number, Little Girls reveals Miss Hannigan’s heart, and in the end you root for her: “I’m an ordinary woman / with feelings / I’d like a man to nibble on my ear / But I’ll admit, no man has bit / so how come I’m the mother of the year?”

Lauchengco-Yulo makes an adorable Miss Hannigan — perhaps too adorable for the story’s own good. She’s not the strict, cruel antagonist some may expect her to be. It even appears like the children run circles around her. She earns your sympathy that when she’s implicated in fraud, you’ll wish they won’t put her in jail.

5.

Annie is like a fairy that sprinkles magic dust of optimism wherever she goes. When her parents’ death is confirmed, she confesses, “I’ve always known they’re gone,” explaining that if they’re indeed alive and care about her, they’d be looking for her, too. She’s not completely naive, after all; but her disposition — and the entire show, for that matter — is too optimistic to be true.

The candy-coated message of hope may not be palatable, but the tale’s revival is rather timely. The year has witnessed extremely divisive socio-political events around the globe, and Annie serves as a reminder that at least we still have the luxury of creating something to look forward to — and that a two-hour escape at the theater doesn’t hurt.

—Originally published on GIST