The cast of "Grease." Photo from the Facebook page of 8 Works Theatrical
MANILA -- The theater group 9 Works Theatrical kicks off a very busy November for local theater with what is arguably the best local staging of the popular Broadway musical "Grease," which opens Saturday night at the RCBC Plaza in Makati.
"Grease," which was made into a hit movie in 1978 with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, had been staged locally several times before, including one that had a post-"Miss Saigon" Lea Salonga as the goody two shoes Sandy opposite an American actor.
But this 2013 version is by far the most fun as it truly captured the youthful effervesence of the 1950s.
After the press preview on Friday, cast member Reb Atadero said the most challenging aspect of "Grease" is keeping the energy at a very high level throughout the performance. Indeed, it is this authentic exuberance that was strangely lacking in the previous productions, such as the one mounted by Repertory Philippines in the 1990s.
Director Robbie Guevarra also benefitted from the 2007 Broadway revival, which reworked the original 1972 musical to incorporate many of the winning elements of the more popular movie like replacing some numbers with songs written specifically for the film version such as "Hopelessly Devoted to You" and the title song.
This new "Grease" also had a zippier pace, which is important given the highly episodic structure of the original book, whose dated humor can quickly become corny for modern audiences.
Given the lightweight material, Guevarra wisely made the songs the main attraction of this staging. The entire set, designed by Mio Infante, looks like a giant '50s-style jukebox with an elevated "concert" stage for the band and some performers. The concert vibe jibed with the musical's overall tone and showcased the perfect pop tunes of original composers Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey that truly captured the flavor of the 1950s.
The cast, which consists of theater veterans, pop singers and some newbies, also included very able vocalists, led by former "Philippine Idol" finalist Gian Magdangal as Danny Zucko and "Emir" actress Francesca Farr as Sandy.
Magdangal effectively channeled his inner Travolta with confident dance moves and a cool strut that felt very natural. Farr showed off her powerful vocals that impressed the production team of the revival of "Miss Saigon" when they recently visited the Philippines.
"ASAP" regular Iya Villania radiated onstage with a strong presence, whether dancing or going dramatic in her big number "There are Worse Things I Could Do," while actress Ciara Sotto made the most of her short stage time as a featured dancer in the musical's prom scene.
But what really boosted this particular staging of "Grease" are the supporting players, who proved to be even more exciting to watch than the more popular leads. Atadero's number "Mooning" with Sarah Facuri was the evening's surprise showstopper, while Carla Dunareanu's "Freddy My Love" with the rest of the Pink Ladies evoked the spirit of this particular era.
Guevarra also had a bit of stunt casting by having a different actor play the Teen Angel for the musical's "Beauty School Dropout" in every performance. On Friday night, the audience squealed with delight when actor Tom Rodriguez appeared for this much-awaited number.
However, it was unfortunate that the one number that lacked the right spark was "Grease Lightning," although newcomer Rafa Siguion-Reyna did admit that he is more of a dancer than a singer. This number -- and the musical in general -- could also use more stage bodies particularly in the big dance numbers, like "Born to Hand Jive" and "You're the One That I Want."
"Grease," as 9 Works shrewdly advertised, may be the original "High School Musical" in reference to the Disney movie, but it thankfully also proved that this musical need not look like it was produced for a high school stage. Despite a few kinks, this production of "Grease" is certainly well-oiled enough for a successful run, beating its predecessors by a mile.
"Grease" runs all weekends from November 9 to December 1 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of RCBC Plaza in Makati . It will have Friday, Saturday and Sunday galas at 8 p.m., Saturday matinees at 3:30 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 4 p.m.