Theater review: 'Dani Girl,' a musical about childhood cancer, is oddly uplifting

Jeeves de Veyra

Posted at Aug 15 2019 06:38 PM | Updated as of Aug 15 2019 07:06 PM

'Dani Girl' is back at the RCBC Plaza in Makati. Jeeves de Veyra

MANILA -- Restaging a musical about childhood cancer is a rather unusual choice to celebrate a milestone. I was wondering, “Why 'Dani Girl?'” to celebrate the fifth anniversary of The Sandbox Collective, and the 10th anniversary of its parent, 9 Works Theatrical.

Maybe it's for sentimental reasons. "Dani Girl" was The Sandbox Collective’s maiden show back in 2014 and it’s like the company going full circle and going home to RCBC Plaza.

The other thing is, who would have thought that a musical about such a heavy topic could be so… joyful?

“Dani Girl” is the defiant story of Danica Lyons, a 9-year-old stricken with leukemia. When we meet Dani, she is at the stage where she loses her hair due to chemotherapy. We meet her imaginary friend, Raph, who goes from happy and helpful, to sarcastic and snide, as he pops up during Dani’s journey. We also meet Dani’s religious, mother who has committed to be by her daughter’s side until the end. Coming along for the ride is Marty, an older boy who uses his love of science fiction and adventure movies to escape. Marty eventually joins Dani’s flights of fancy on her quest to answer the question, “Why is cancer?”

I initially thought Pam Imperial, who played Dani’s mom, was a little weak towards the beginning of the play simply because she had little to do. But during her major moments in the play, one where she was having a heartfelt conversation with her daughter, and her song about what happened to Dani’s dad, she just killed it. There wasn’t a dry eye in the audience as she was belting her heart out.

Felicity Kyle Napuli and Daniel Drilon in a scene from 'Dani Girl.' Jeeves de Veyra

Daniel Drilon’s nerdy Marty is played as a vulnerable kid who gets lost in his own world. So vulnerable, he was actually bullied by the much younger Dani when they first meet. The progression from a weakling to Dani’s pilot, navigator and co-conspirator is amusing and touching.

Through Marty, the references to all things geeky and nerdy are plentiful. Hearing the Imperial March from "Star Wars" being used as house music made me expect Darth Vader to appear on stage (He does, sorta). Marty is a character that’s lovingly crafted, from his nerdy demeanor to his various accessories (love that X-Wing Pilot helmet), to some sequences that could have been lifted straight out of the movies he likes. Shout-outs to Star Wars, Star Trek, DC Superheroes, Indiana Jones, "Inner Space," and "Back to the Future" were winks to the geeks in the audience.

Juliene Mendoza was a chameleon in this play. His multi-faceted portrayal of Raph, Dani’s best-friend/guardian angel, constantly made me wonder if I should root for or against him. Raph goes from friend to enemy and back again in an instant. He goes from reality TV host, to the personification of cancer, to a certain heavy breathing science fiction villain, to a Mexican drug dealer, to his final character which he imbues a certain casual gravitas to without going overboard.

Felicity Kyle Napuli in a scene from 'Dani Girl.' Jeeves de Veyra

But the real angel of "Dani Girl" is Felicity Kyle Napuli who plays the titular character. I dare say that this girl is the newest triple threat of Philippine theater. She can act, she can dance, and man can she sing! She can have the audience rolling in the aisles with her on-point delivery of punchlines, snicker with her fourth wall breaks, and just as instantly hush the audience bringing them to the verge of tears with a perfectly timed heavy line.

This particular cast with young actors playing Dani and Marty made this musical much more heartfelt, joyful, and painful to watch. On one hand, you have wide-eyed kids with a sense of wonder getting lost in their imagination. On the other hand, knowing and seeing that these are kids, and that they are dying of cancer just makes the tragedy more real. Kudos to the Sandbox Collective for finding and casting Napuli and Drilon and pulling this off.

There is so much love, and so much to love about "Dani Girl."

The music was given due respect with a live band accompanying the actors. I remember the cello just adding deepening the sadness during certain songs.

Felicity Kyle Napuli and Juliene Mendoza in a scene from 'Dani Girl.' Jeeves de Veyra

Toff De Venecia’s inventive staging made this a feast for the eyes. Sequences like an in-your-face reality TV show, a lightsaber duel, a subplot based on "Fantastic Voyage," and that amazingly simple no-frills end sequence that just had me focused on the stage on the verge of tears, gave this production an unreal, sometimes whimsical, quality.

A “tunnel of light” dominates the set that is used as a bridge between life and death, and reality and imagination. Projections ranging from the fantastical to the psychedelic were also utilized, which are consistent with the imagination of the two kids. 

Felicity Kyle Napuli and Juliene Mendoza in a scene from 'Dani Girl.' Jeeves de Veyra

The central theme of “Why is cancer?” could easily be reworded as “Why is pain?” or “Why is suffering?”. There are religious overtones in the musical but these were reigned in. Making Marty an atheist though still believing in a higher power through his superheroes just makes the musical’s themes more universal.

As Dani had to find the answer to “Why is cancer?”, I went back to my initial question “Why 'Dani Girl?'”

Sab Jose, The Sandbox Collective’s marketing and PR director, had the best answer during her welcome remarks: “The world has turned quite bleak. And we all need a bit of hope in our lives. And isn’t hope best seen through the eyes of children?”

I found the optimism of "Dani Girl" to be quite contagious. And these days, being infected with childlike optimism and hope in the theater can be quite an uplifting experience.

The cast at curtain call. Jeeves de Veyra

The Sandbox Collective’s production of Michael Kooman’s and Christopher Dimond’s “Dani Girl” runs at the RCBC Theater with evening shows on August 17, 18, 24, 31, and September 1, and matinee shows on August 24, 25, and September 1.