MANILA -- Repertory Philippines returns with Toff de Venecia’s deconstructed vision of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” for its 460th live production.
De Venecia, in his director’s notes, said he was surprised that he was tapped to handle this production of "Carousel." Known for grittier material such as the works he has tackled in his other theater company, The Sandbox Collective, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical didn’t seem like a perfect match.
This is definitely not the Rodgers and Hammerstein or "Carousel" that our parents grew up with. No garish bright sets, or overly colorful costumes here. Instead, the audience is transported to a gritty grimy vision in the 1920s Great Depression America where this tragic romance of Billy Bigelow and Julie Jordan is set.
To say that this is a deconstructed "Carousel" is an understatement. I’d venture to say that this is "Carousel" stripped of the fluff to reveal the underlying realities of that age, which De Venecia has somehow made relevant a century later.
Even during the overture, we already get slices of life on the docks and there’s a feeling that there’s something not quite right. Somebody takes out a smartphone taking pictures -- and it somehow doesn’t feel that off. The production is spiced up with moments like that.
The new CCP Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez black box theater, which was on loan to Repertory Philippines for this production, was an appropriate venue for the production’s minimal traverse staging and lighting, where the audience is seated on both sides of the stage, inviting them to examine everything up close and personal.
Instead of an orchestra, the two-piano score, masterfully played by Ejay Yatco and Joed Balsamo, completed this intimate vision. I thought that all of these elements fit into place, making it feel like watching a vaudeville play back in that era.
Karylle Tatlonghari is luminous as Julie Jordan and her heavenly voice just soars. Although in a cast of theater veterans, she is sometimes overshadowed by those she shares the stage with, when her performance veers to the more subtle side.
Gian Magdangal has really matured as a theater actor. His Billy Bigelow is a flawed character and Magdangal just shows his range from joy to wrath to desperation within a few seconds. The power behind his voice carries the pathos and emotion to properly deliver the musical's signature songs -- the caress behind "If I Loved You" with Tatlonghari, the alternating exuberance and confusion of "What's the Use of Wond'rin" all to the final soliliquys.
The supporting cast entrances as well. Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante is just delightful as the naive Carrie Pipperidge, and Lorenz Martinez really hams it up breaking up the somber tone of the play. Martinez endows his Enoch Snow with his goofy grin, awkwardness, comedic timing, and exaggeration that never fails to get a laugh from the audience.
Noel Rayos, as usual, steals the show when he’s on stage. His antagonist, Jigger Craigin, is scheming, sinister, salty, and someone you wouldn’t want to run into on a dark street.
Mia Bolaños plays Nettie Fowler, as a tender mother figure to the girls. The iconic “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is sung with fragility and grief that does justice to that pivotal scene.
The second act is ballet dancer Gia Gequinto‘s show. She flits in and out of the show several times in Act 1, but eventually gets more stage time when she becomes Louise. She tells a moving story with just her movement, her body language, and her face, though it is a bit jarring when she starts speak as her English is not as polished as the other actors. Gequinto is someone to watch out for as she blooms into a certified theatrical triple threat.
De Venecia really doesn’t hide the misogyny and violence towards women in the play. The musical's joyous “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” is rudely interrupted by Bigelow’s hitting of Jordan, something that was just implied in the original work. During another scene, another character takes out a mobile phone to record a video of himself with the rest of the cast following suit that reflects the “trial by social media” that seems prevalent these days.
There is an extended interpretative dance sequence that is emotionally exhaustive to watch. As my wife put it, that segment fully expresses what growing up as a woman is like with all the pain of being pushed and pulled from all directions.
For those looking for a tried-and-true interpretation of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, this is not it. But if you’re open minded to see how seemingly outdated material can be re-imagined for a post-pandemic social media crazy society, this unique version of "Carousel" makes one think.
This is probably the most un-Repertory Philippines, Repertory Philippines production I’ve ever seen and I thought it was all the better for it veering into the experimental.
To quote artistic director Liesl Batucan-Del Rosario, “Good theater is good theater, and Repertory Philippines is Repertory Philippines.”
Theater is back! Repertory Philippines is back! And with "Carousel," it is a reminder that after through all the hardships of the past years, we never walk alone.
Repertory Philippines production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" runs at the CCP's Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez until December 18.