Philippine theater in 2019 felt for the most part like a repeat of the previous year.
Fortunately, 2018 was such a groundbreaking year, particularly for original Filipino material, that these restagings meant that more people got to chance to see them — and that is always a positive thing. Dulaang UP’s “The Kundiman Party,” for instance, was restaged at the PETA Theater, potentially attracting a wider audience beyond its core university crowd.
In the case of Resorts World Manila’s hit “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” the re-run was also an opportunity to further improve on the musical featuring the songs of the Eraserheads. Apart from the tighter book, the lengthy re-run also required a new set of actors who certainly brought new energy and also addressed some casting concerns in the original.
Returning productions all boasted of fresh talent to help sustain interest. “Rak of Aegis,” back for a seventh season for PETA, had Jenine Desiderio, Randy Santiago and Derrick Monasterio, while Roxanne Barcelo staged a comeback in 9 Works Theatrical’s “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO,” while its award-winning production of “Himala” (with sister Sandbox Collective) added Celine Fabie, Vic Robinson III and Shiela Francisco. Tanghalang Pilipino scored a casting coup when it convinced Monique Wilson to play the title role in “Mabining Mandirigma.”
To mark its fifth anniversary, Sandbox also revisited its debut production “Dani Girl,” while Atlantis Theatrical, which turned 20, brought back “Angels in America.” Philippine Stagers Foundation also reworked an old material, the 2014 musical "Filipinas 1941," to create “Sindak 1941,” while Ateneo Blue Rep mounted “Spring Awakening” again after only six years.
Veteran theatergoers were also treated to new productions of three Stephen Sondheim musicals, which have already been done by Repertory Philippines in the past — “Company” (Upstart Productions), “Passion” (Philippine Opera Company) and “Sweeney Todd” (Atlantis).
Even this year’s major touring productions — “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera” — have already visited Manila before but were still embraced by local audiences.
But not all the repeats were warmly welcomed. “Miong” didn’t work in 1998 for Rep and it certainly felt sorely out of touch decades later post-“Heneral Luna.”
The good news is that with all these re-runs now out of the way, expect 2020 to be another banner year as theater groups finally unveil new productions.
For this year in review, I tried to catch as many productions as I can, with notable omissions like Dulaang UP’s “Fuente Ovejuna,” De La Salle-College of St. Benilde’s "Ang Dakilang Teatro ng Daigdig," and Ateneo Blue Rep’s “The Theory of Relativity.” I also deliberately excluded student thesis productions, staged readings, as well as the two PETA Lab productions.
10 BEST PRODUCTIONS OF 2019
1. Angels in America
It is but fitting, given the recurring theme of last year, that the best production of 2019 is this revisited work, which kicked off Atlantis’ 20th anniversary season. Bobby Garcia first directed this back in 1995 but this production is hardly bent on nostalgia. Instead, Garcia brought to this much-celebrated work a more mature sense of artistry, honed by decades of theatrical experience. This new staging felt more intimate despite the sprawling narrative, allowing both the actors and the audience to ruminate on the play’s core message, which is really about love and life and how we are all interconnected in this world.
2. Stop Kiss
Another revisited work, “Stop Kiss” was first presented in 2003 with the same lead stars, Missy Maramara and Jenny Jamora. This time they switched roles but the two actresses aren’t the only reasons why “Stop Kiss” is on this list. It’s heartbreaking to note that hate crimes continue to be waged against members of the LGBT community and “Stop Kiss” beautifully reminds us that ultimately #lovewins. But more than that, the design and direction of Ed Lacson Jr. are further proof that he is the most exciting creative in theater right now.
Playwright Bibeth Orteza made an excellent translation that stayed true to John Steinbeck’s classic “Of Mice and Men” but totally believable in its new setting in present day Negros with the desperation and injustice and the feeble dreams of the sugar plantation workers. "Katsuri" is a powerful drama of class struggle and wanton disregard of the poor that continues disturbingly well after Steinbeck's Great Depression and Negros' own difficult history of suffering.
4. Sweeney Todd
Bobby Garcia’s stunning, post-apocalyptic vision for “Sweeney Todd” is ultimately a matter of personal taste but his radical reimagining of Stephen Sondheim’s beloved, 40-year-old masterpiece sets a new bar for local companies staging popular Broadway fare. He also gave Lea Salonga her meatiest role post-“Miss Saigon” — and she totally kills it.
Tanghalang Pilipino’s stage musical based on the epic “Lam-Ang” is a proud celebration of our roots as a people before colonization. It achieves this by mixing rituals and tradition with highly theatrical flourishes, resulting in a kinetic presentation that leaves you spellbound. Despite the careful research that went into the overall design and story-telling, “Lam-Ang” doesn’t feel like a museum relic and its message remains oddly relevant in this savage period in our history.
6. Spring Awakening
This exquisite production by Ateneo Blue Rep was truly the first great musical of 2019, even better than those mounted by the pros with its moody, modern design, stripped down and haunting musical arrangements, and clear stage direction. Then there’s that star-making performance of Krystal Kane and the strong ensemble of students actors. What’s not to love?
Director Topper Fabregas proved that this popular Sondheim work can feel fresh and modern while still staying true to the spirit of the ‘70s. Its central story about the search for love and happiness rings true regardless of decade and Fabregas’ “Company” is more emotionally resonant than just funny or hummable. He gave equal, if not more, importance to its non-musical parts and storytelling that made me feel as if I'm watching it for the first time, while maximizing the overflowing talent onstage.
8. Nana Rosa
“Nana Rosa,” Rody Vera’s movie script-turned-stage drama about Maria Rosa Henson, the first Filipina to come out with her harrowing experience as a comfort woman during the Japanese occupation in World War II, is a brave, engrossing and important piece of theater. Director Jose Estrella brought an almost cinematic sweep to the story with blunt, in-your-face theatrical moments and moving performances from Upeng Galang Fernandez (Peewee O’Hara alternated) and especially Krystle Valentino. “Nana Rosa” reminds us that there are other painful stories in our history that we also should #neverforget.
Philippine Opera Company’s anniversary offering is simply captivating. Sondheim’s music here is drop-dead gorgeous and director Robbie Guevara and his design team brought it to life in the most alluring manner, with lustrous costumes, and dramatic lighting, and a luminous performance by Shiela Valderrama-Martinez.
10. Alpha Kappa Omega
Taken on its own, as a drama on fraternities in today’s woke millennial society, the intense “Alpha Kappa Omega,” a stage adaptation of Mike de Leon’s classic movie “Batch 81,” works very well in communicating its message to its primary college target. With gritty stage violence, an austere set, and anchored by a strong central performance by student John Sanchez as Sid Lucero, this is the most realized production of Tanghalang Ateneo in an ambitious if uneven year.
10 BEST PEFORMANCES OF 2019
1. Lea Salonga in “Sweeney Todd”
In a year that celebrates brave women for reclaiming their stories in #herstory, Lea Salonga played the quirky accomplice of the title character and made her his equal — and worthy of taking the final bow. In fact, one can argue that Lovett could well be the greater evil and Salonga made this perfectly clear. She delivered with an unwavering accent and pitch-perfect tones that turned her numbers, especially “By the Sea,” into unexpected show-stoppers.
2. Shiela Valderrama-Martinez in “Passion”
In a musical that radiated with so much beauty, a deglamorized Shiela Valderrama-Martinez shone as she totally disappeared as the sickly Fosca. And it was not just a matter of make-up and costume. Even her voice, while still maintaining its clarity and precision, was in sync with her dark character. I also loved that she fully embraced Fosca’s repellant side and her manipulative tendencies, which all the more made her solo “Loving You” such a tender, pivotal moment.
3. Missy Maramara in “Stop Kiss”
2019 was definitely the year of Missy Maramara. She guided Ateneo Blue Rep to wide acclaim in “Spring Awakeing.” She was the cool tita we loved in “The Kundiman Party” and even appeared in Repertory Philippines “The Dresser” opposite Teroy Guzman and Audie Gemora. But she will be best remembered this year for her intricately delicious performance in “Stop Kiss.” The chemistry between her and Jenny Jamora throbs with heartbreaking authenticity.
4. Jonathan Tadioan in “Katsuri” and “Ang Huling El Bimbo”
When I heard that Jonathan Tadioan was going to play Lennie, wh Toto in the Filipino adaptation of “Of Mice and Men,” I boldly predicted that 2019 was going to be his year. He already made a mark as the dangerously corrupt Arturo Banlaoi in “Ang Huling El Bimbo” and he again delivered, even more than what I expected, in “Katsuri.” Tadioan was not just committed but consistent as the mentally challenged, lumbering Toto, whose strength and helplessness capture the tragic plight of the sacada in Negros.
5. Marco Viana in “Katsuri” and “Coriolano”
“Coriolano” officially launched Marco Viana as a serious leading man and he was solid as the brave but arrogant soldier who was thrust into power but was deposed by the people. But he was outstanding in “Katsuri,” as the suffering yet patient George, who carries the full weight of the sacadas’ collective pipe dream of a simple life with dignity on his tired shoulders.
6. Topper Fabregas in "Angels in America"
Topper Fabregas, who already earned positive reviews for playing an AIDS patient in The Necessary Theater’s “The Normal Heart” in 2015, is the emotional center of this star-studded drama with a touching performance that captures the conflicting emotions of a once-joyful individual left behind to bravely face the fight of his life alone. Fabregas even managed to inject humor in a remarkably nuanced portrayal that’s both sad and hopeful.
7. Kakki Teodoro in “Every Brilliant Thing”
Kakki Teodoro builds on her breakthrough performance in “Himala” in 2018 with this monologue about mental health. “Every Brilliant Thing” was written as a one-man show with plenty of audience interaction that aims to #stopthestigma. But more than her gracious and warm personality, Teodoro gave this show the depth of emotion I felt it needed. Teodoro truly understood the highs and lows of her condition — and even the joys of vinyl — and we exit the theater not only informed but comforted by her inspiring performance.
8. Felicity Kyle Napuli in “Dani Girl”
I saw the original staging of “Dani Girl” in 2014 but I was still quite unprepared for Felicity Kyle Napuli's amazing portrayal of a 9 -year-old battling cancer. While the musical’s original lead, Rebecca Coates, can still convincingly play the part, it's a totally different experience watching an actual child in the role — you can’t help but become more affected — and Napuli is such a gifted performer with crystal clear vocals and acting talent to boot. She can easily shift from playful and imaginative to tender and scared yet determined, even hopeful, in spite of her character’s worsening condition.
9. Tex Ordonez-De Leon in “Lam-Ang”
Tex Ordonez-De Leon does not just open — and close — this epic musical. Her haunting chants are hypnotic and immediately hooks you into the world of “Lam-Ang.” JC Santos may be a charismatic hero but Ordonez-De Leon is the musical’s steady emotional anchor with an expressive face and controlled vocals, who guides us through this journey of cultural discovery.
10. Mayen Estanero, Marj Lorico and Meann Espinosa in “Fan Girl”
The runaway favorite of Virgin Labfest 15 is this zany one-act play about three longtime friends who get together to book tickets online for the much-awaited reunion concert of their beloved boyband. And much of the appeal of this snug comedy is the skintight trio of Mayen Estanero, Marj Lorico and Meann Espinosa, who fully embrace the thrill and pressures of fandom, as well as the irresistible hold of pop culture.
Honorable mentions: Jenny Jamora (“Stop Kiss”), Jill Pena (“Dancing Lessons”), Monique Wilson (“Mabining Mandirigma”), Gab Pangilinan (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”), Krystal Kane (“Spring Awakening”), Markie Stroem (“Angels in America”), Art Acuna (“Angels in America”), Brian Sy (“Coriolano” and “If He Doesn’t See Your Face”), Ron Capinding (“Ang Apologia ni Socrates”), Stella Canete-Mendoza (“The House of Bernarda Alba”), Paw Castillo (“Mabining Mandirigma” and “Lam-Ang”), Krystle Valentino (“Nana Rosa” and “Anak Na Ng”)
CREATIVE AND TECHNICAL ACHIEVEMENT
Best Play (Original, Adaptation or Translation): Rody Vera (“Nana Rosa”)
Honorable mentions: Bibeth Orteza (“Katsuri”), Guelan Luarca (“Alpha Kappa Omega” and “Coriolano”), Sabrina Basilio (“Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines”), Herlyn Alegre (“Fan Girl”), Alexander Cortez (“Ang Tahanan ni Bernarda Alba”), Nicholas Pichay (“Larong Demonyo”), Eljay Castro Deldoc (“13th of September”)
Best Book of a Musical (Original, Adaptation or Translation): Luna Grino-Inocian (“The Quest for the Adarna”)
Honorable mention: Eljay Castro Deldoc (“Lam-Ang”)
Best Direction: Ed Lacson Jr. (“Stop Kiss”)
Honorable mentions: Bobby Garcia (“Angels in America” and “Sweeney Todd”), Missy Maramara (“Spring Awakening”), Jose Estrella (“Nana Rosa”), Topper Fabregas (“Company”), Fitz Bitana and Marco Viana (“Lam-Ang”), Carlitos Siguion-Reyna (“Katsuri”), Robbie Guevara ("Passion")
Best Score: Vince Lim and Jeff Hernandez (“Charot”)
Honorable mentions: Jen Torres (“Lam-Ang”), Jef Flores (“Flashcard Tangle”), Jesse Lucas (“Roses for Ben”), TJ Ramos (Br. Benilde)
Best Choreography: JM Cabling (“Lam-Ang”)
Honorable mentions: Cecile Martinez (“Beautiful”), Mica Fajardo (“Spring Awakening”), Nancy Crowe (“Company”), PJ Rebullida (“The Quest for the Adarna”)
Best Musical Direction: TJ Ramos (“Lam-Ang”)
Honorable mentions: Farley Asuncion (“Beautiful”), Gerard Salonga (“Sweeney Todd”), Rony Fortich (“Company”), Ejay Yatco (“Spring Awakening”), Daniel Bartolome (“Passion”)
Best Set Design: Marco Viana (“Lam-Ang”)
Honorable mentions: David Gallo (“Sweeney Todd”), Ed Lacson Jr. (“Stop Kiss” and “The Dresser”), Joey Mendoza (“The Quest for the Adarna”), Faust Peneyra (“Beautiful” and “Dani Girl”), Gino Gonzales (“The House of Bernarda Alba”), Charles Yee (“Nana Rosa”), Ohm David (“Spring Awakening”)
Best Lighting Design: Aaron Porter (“Sweeney Todd” and “Beautiful”)
Honorable mentions: Meliton Roxas (“Lam-Ang”), JonJon Villareal (“Angels in America”), Shakira Villa Symes (“Passion”), Dennis Marasigan (“Katsuri”), D Cortezano (“Dolorosa” and “The House of Bernarda Alba”), Jethro Nibaten (“Stop Kiss”), Barbie Tan Tiongco (“Nana Rosa” and “The Dresser”)
<BOLD> Best Costume Design: Bonsai Cielo (“Lam-Ang”)
Honorable mentions: Rajo Laurel (“Sweeney Todd”), Tata Tuviera (“The Quest for the Adarna”), Gino Gonzales (“The House of Bernarda Alba”), Raven Ong (“Beautiful”), Zenaida Gutierrez (“Passion”), Jay Lorenz Cunanan (“Madagascar”)
Best Sound Design: Arvy Dimaculangan (“Every Brilliant Thing”)
Honorable mentions: Josh Millican (“Beautiful”), TJ Ramos (“Lam-Ang”), Glendfford Malimban (“Dani Girl” and “Angels in America”), Xander Soriano (“Alpha Kappa Omega”), Justin Stasiw (“Sweeney Todd”), Krina Cayabyab (“Antigone vs. the People of the Philippines”), AJ Manalo (“Br. Benilde”)