One of My Favorite Things

21 Oct

Originally published in the Weekender Section of BusinessWorld, October 20-22, 2011 (Link here)

THEATER REVIEW
The Sound of Music
Oct. 15 to Dec. 11
Newport Performing Arts Theater,
Resorts World Manila, Pasay City

WHEN A foreign visitor calls Manila (perhaps he meant Metro Manila, and not just the city of Manila) a “dump,” it speaks volumes of how people view our country’s decline from being an Asian Tiger in its prime to a mewling baby cub in its maturing years. Although honesty is always laudable and welcome, it is unfortunate that his views, albeit true, are limited to a criticism of poor infrastructure (bad airport with disgusting coffee, terrible hotel) and the awful traffic. Sadly, even as he disparages the city and paints it in a dismaying light, he conveniently overlooks the many other facets that make Manila worth visiting.

It is inevitable — this comparison that often finds us lacking and deficient against the other nations of the world. We are a poor country run into the ground by years of corruption and inefficient governing, of poor planning and an appalling lack of foresight. But we are also a country with a tenacious heart and a resilient spirit. These are what make me hopeful, what make me cling to the future with optimism. We are down, but we are never out.

Nowhere are these more evident than in the arts. When I think of Manila, I think of an artistry that rivals, if not equals, the best talents of the world. I think of Manila and I marvel at how such a “drab and dirty” place can produce music, dance, film, performance art, and art of any form with passion and grace.

It is easy to be reactionary and defensive, but there is proof.

Everywhere in the city, at any one time, our theater stages showcase the best performances of a wide-ranging genre. One of these, The Sound of Music, is currently showing at the Resorts World Manila Newport Performing Arts Theater (NPAT). Watch it and I assure you that your reaction will be the same as mine.

Goosebumps. I got goosebumps.

The Sound of Music, a musical based loosely on the memoir of Maria Von Trapp, is one of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s most enduring collaborations. It is also their last, as Mr. Hammerstein passed away shortly after the opening of the musical play. From its initial opening on Broadway in November 1959, with stage luminary Mary Martin as the irrepressible Maria, it has gone on to reach millions of audiences worldwide. Its reincarnation in the 1965 Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer Academy-award-winning movie of the same name sealed its reputation as one of the most well-loved and most-watched musicals of all time.

For the third time in the more than 50-year history of this musical, The Sound of Music makes its mark with local audiences in Resorts World Manila’s production. Running until Dec. 11 of this year, The Sound of Music brings back to the stage many of the most engaging songs of our childhood, from “Do-Re-Mi,” to “My Favorite Things,” to the inspirational “Climb Every Mountain.” Incidentally, for those appreciating the play for the first time, it might be surprising to see the differences between the play and the film version, with certain scenes and songs maintaining their original sequence in the Broadway play.

What makes this production different from its predecessors, however, is the technology infused into this classic favorite. Director Roxanne Lapuz assembled an eminent creative team composed of the best people in the business. For starters, inside the 1,500-seat Newport Performing Arts Theater, the play is set against a majestic mixed background of three-dimensional moving stage props and a 30×8 meter active LED video backdrop of panoramic landscapes. The set design by scenographer Mio Infante and video backdrop by television commercial director Paul Soriano are jaw-dropping impressive.

Then, too, the costumes for the performers (created by couturier Francis Libiran) are fit for the historical period, from the nuns’ habits and wimples, to the resplendent ball gowns of the era, to the brown shirts’ uniforms. Special mention must be made of Maria’s wedding gown, which is stately and elegant.

The music, reminiscent of angels playing their instruments, is by The Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, with maestro Rodel Colmenar as conductor. Right from the get-go, The Sound of Music does not scrimp on stage and production values.

Still, the soul of the play remains the artists. At the media launch of The Sound of Music, veteran stage performer Audie Gemora convincingly donned a different persona as the stiff, imperious Captain Georg Von Trapp. With seven rambunctious children, each with an obviously distinctive personality, the Von Trapp household finds itself in a bind with the loss of one governess after another. A postulant of the Noonberg Abbey, Maria Rainer, played by West End regular Joanna Ampil, is sent by Mother Abbess, played by Sheila Francisco, to discover life outside the abbey by assuming the role of the children’s new governess. Her irrepressible, unconventional nature — the one that bursts into song at any moment — endears her to the children, and eventually, to their father. The Sound of Music, it can be said, is as much a love story of Maria and the children, and hers and Captain Von Trapp’s.

The path to true love, however, is never smooth. Sultry Pinky Amador as the Baroness Elsa Schräder almost becomes the children’s new mother, were it not for a clash of principles. While family friend Max Detweiler (Miguel Faustmann) approves of the romance, he also has his vested interests in the relationship — he has his sights on shepherding the children to the big stage. Rounding up the cast of personalities are the housekeeper Frau Schindt (Debraliz Valasote), the butler Franz (Viking Valasote), both of whom provide timely comedic relief, and the glorious singing sisters of Noonberg Abbey (Jennifer Villegas as Sister Berthe, Sarah Facuri as Sister Margretta, and Jillian Peña as Sister Sophia).

While there is no doubt that the adult stage actors are imposing powerhouses in acting and singing, it is the young personalities who can be considered a real casting coup. One after another, these kids played their roles with such aplomb and a natural flair that it is hard to imagine some of them are new to the profession. Liesl (Tanya Manalang), Friedrick, (Paolo Luis Ocampo), Louisa (Danielle Sanghio), Brigitta (Atasha Muhlach), Kurt (Justin Sian), Marta (Alida Moberg) and Gretl (Alexa Villaroel) charmed the crowds and brought many of them to laughter and tears. Rolf, the young man who captures Liesl’s heart, played by Marvin Ong, is injected with just the right amount of bravado and arrogance that even he takes on a big part of the limelight.

The Newport Performing Arts Theater boasts of luxurious accommodations (yes, seats as comfortable as beds), great acoustics, and a remarkably wide stage. However, because of the panoramic views of the backdrops, best seats for this play would be somewhere in the middle of the theater. Older patrons may want seats closer to the stage to see the actors better, but to appreciate the grand scale of the set working for its actors, the middle rows are the best, both visually and acoustically.

There is no other word for it. The Sound of Music is a gem. That we can mount a monumental production with world-class acting is proof that not all in Manila is “drab and dirty.” Perhaps one of these days, we ought to offer the world more glimpses of this side of our nation — the one that rises above inequity and poverty and brings out the best in every one of us.

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