Review: Musical bravely tackles child cancer

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Jul 11 2014 11:07 AM | Updated as of Jul 11 2014 07:07 PM

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Dani (Rebecca Coates) and her guardian angel Raph (Reb Atadero) in a scene from “Dani Girl.” Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for

MANILA – Will Filipino theatergoers watch a musical about a nine-year-old girl with terminal cancer?

The Sandbox Collective is hoping they will as the new arts company led by its managing artistic director, Toff de Venecia, makes its debut with the Off Broadway musical “Dani Girl” on Friday night at the RCBC Plaza in Makati City.

After the show’s preview performance on Thursday, de Venecia, the son of former House Speaker Jose de Venecia, explained that he believes theater should be more than just escapist entertainment and that he wants audiences to continue the discussion even after they exit the auditorium.

There is certainly a lot to discuss about “Dani Girl,” which was created by Michael Kooman (music) and Christopher Dimond (book and lyrics), who were given the Jonathan Larson Grant by the American Theatre Wing. This grant was named for the late creator of the award-winning “Rent,” the first production mounted by 9 Works Theatrical, which de Venecia is also a part of.

De Venecia, who also directed “Dani Girl,” admitted that he wasn’t aware of the material when he was looking for the launch project for Sandbox. Sifting through a catalogue of plays, he clicked on “Dani Girl” because, he said, the title reminded him of the Chumbawamba hit. He was then intrigued by the synopsis and found the songs beautiful even though he heard only snippets.

“Dani Girl” tells of the struggles of nine-year-old Dani Lyons (Rebecca Coates) as she battles leukemia after three years of remission. To help her cope with her situation, she has developed an active fantasy life, where she plays games with her guardian angel/imaginary friend Raph (Reb Atadero). The musical, in fact, opens with Dani and Raph at a funeral for one of the young girl’s toys.

But when a boy, Marty (Luigi Quesada), becomes Dani’s hospital mate at the pediatric oncology ward, she has found a real friend. Marty, a film geek who loves “Star Wars,” Superman and Indiana Jones, joins Dani as they journey their way across their imaginary galaxy in search for the answer to “why is cancer.”

Despite many light moments – some are actually, yes, funny – there is no escaping this disease in “Dani Girl,” which even includes a personification of cancer, a black clad figure with a skull for a head. The creators do not sugarcoat the pain nor raise false hopes about the eventual outcome.

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Dani and Marty come face to face with Cancer (center). Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for

While audiences will very likely be moved to tears, “Dani Girl” is not the cry-fest one would expect, given the topic. It doesn’t dwell too much on the sadness and while there is a pronounced discussion on Christian faith – mainly courtesy of Dani’s mother (Shiela Valderrama-Martinez) – the musical doesn’t preach.

But there are moments that are difficult to watch, particularly when the musical raises the idea of suicide – there’s even a macabre number that outlines the advantages of being in a coma.

De Venecia was given the option of casting real child actors for the lead roles but he chose to cast teenagers instead. There’s always the tendency of dumbing down when adults take on roles of kids but fortunately this didn’t happen in this case.

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Teenagers Rebecca Coates and Luigi Quesada play children with cancer in “Dani Girl.” Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for

Coates, particularly in her scenes with Valderrama, movingly captures the confusion of a child who is aware but doesn’t fully grasp her condition. It is a brave, restrained performance that is at the core of why “Dani Girl” works and why it has skirted melodrama territory despite the cancer topic.

It would be interesting to see the much older Atadero play Marty in some performances, including Friday’s opening night. But as the scene-stealing Raph, Atadero shows range and knack for voice impersonations as Raph shifts to whoever Dani wants him to be – from a flamboyant French hairdresser to a Latino drug dealer.

However, despite the production’s solid achievements, there is still that question: Will you watch a musical about a dying kid?

There are tear-jerkers that are actually entertaining and there is such a thing as a good cry. “Dani Girl” is not one of those dramas. You don’t leave the theater feeling good. The experience demands to be processed.

And maybe that is what De Venecia ultimately wants to accomplish.

“Dani Girl” opens on July 11 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, RCBC Plaza, Makati City. It runs until July 27.