Theater review: ‘Dani Girl’ is an emotional roller-coaster ride

Leah C. Salterio

Posted at Aug 24 2019 09:00 AM

Erickson De La Cruz

A precocious young girl who’s struggling with cancer fights so hard to live and bring back her lost hair. That undoubtedly gave the musical, “Dani Girl,” a unique and sensitive tone that readily sets it apart from most productions presented onstage.

Danica Lyons is everybody’s well-loved “Dani Girl” in the restaging of the well-loved musical, presented by The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical. Her imagination was simply unbelievable, unmatched even. She opted to see life in a more beautiful and playful, albeit imaginary way, despite her terminal illness – and brought the laughs, too.

Writers Christopher Dimond and Michael Kooman loosely based the story on the life of Dimond’s cousin, who had cancer when the latter was a kid. The story of a true-to-life cancer patient was also used as inspiration for Dimond’s graduate thesis.

Becca Coates reprised the title role along with Luigi Quesada, who played the role of her roommate Marty. The pair undoubtedly formed a bond five years ago when they first did “Dani Girl,” that was why they had an undeniable connection when they played their same, complex characters anew.

Coates, admittedly, had to really internalize playing a nine-year-old once again. She was admirably onstage for two hours – except for the 15-minute intermission where her skull cap had to be fixed and she needed to take a bathroom break. Yet, Coates was tireless.

From the moment she stepped onstage, she took the audience to a dream-like, funny, and heartbreaking quest to battle cancer. She delivered her lines with child-like and feisty enthusiasm.

She sang her songs with so much depth and emotions. She never buckled nor missed a beat. Perhaps, that was her advantage in originating the title role. She had mastered her dialogue and she knew her lines. She knew when to make the audience laugh and at the same time, bring them to tears.

Interestingly, Coates’ cuddly teddy bear in the musical, Mr. Fritz, is her toy in real life which she had since she was nine years old. She used the teddy bear five years ago, when “Dani Girl” was first staged, then took it out again when she was told that she would reprise her role in the restaging.

Marty was admirably the movie geek that heightened the entertainment aspect of the musical. Also a cancer patient who was battling Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he was constantly covered with his Superman blanket from the time he arrived in the hospital room he shared with Dani.

He rattled off a number of his favorite films along the way – “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Indiana Jones,” even “Back To the Future,” as he used Marty among his many names. He was obviously the perfect foil to Dani. Yet, they connived in so many adventures of their imaginary journey.

Awit Award-winning actress Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, who was also part of the original cast, reprised her role as Dani’s mom, Katherine. Valderrama attested playing the mom again was never easy to do, contrary to what others initially thought. She had to revisit everything with the rest of the cast, from the set to the blocking to the choreography.

Valderrama belted out her powerful solo, “The Sun Still Rose,” and understandably cried as she grappled with the fact that she will soon lose her daughter to cancer. She brilliantly displayed the angst normally felt by a mom undergoing such cathartic pain, that her song was evidently one of the painful moments in the musical.

Earlier on, Valderrama and Coates shared the reality they were facing when they rendered the touching duet, “No More Fairy Tale Endings.”

Raph, inventively essayed by Lorenz Martinez, was Dani’s imaginary friend and so much more. He was the man who wore many hats – the Mexican drug dealer, the guardian angel, TV host, and even God, who blew the dandelions away. At some point, he was even the king who sang to Dani.

Except for the tunnel and the two beds onstage, the musical did not require an elaborate set. The vivid imagination of the two kids made everything they thought about, giving a positive environment.

For a heavy and emotional material like “Dani Girl,” the collaborative and encouraging efforts of the four characters onstage made the musical simply wonderful.

Felicity Kyle Napuli plays Dani in other performances, with Daniel Drilon as Marty, Pam Imperial as Katherine Lyon, and Juliene Mendoza as Raph.

“Dani Girl” takes everyone to a roller-coaster ride of emotions. In moments of despair, the musical showed that there could always be moments of hope. The children – Dani and Marty – have unbelievable energy yet they manage to move the audience to tears.

“Dani Girl” runs this August 24 and 25 and on August 31 and September 1 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza in Makati City. Toff De Venecia is at the helm, with musical direction by Ejay Yatco and choreography by Stephen Vinas.