Review: 'Joe' gives Rizal lessons via song and dance

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Jul 24 2012 06:11 PM | Updated as of Jul 25 2012 02:18 AM

A scene from “Joe: A Filipino Rock’sical.” Photo by Dale Bacar

MANILA, Philippines – Philippine Stagers Foundation (PSF), which has been dubbed the “David” of local theater, has struck again, proving that its Aliw Award-winning musical “Cory ng EDSA” was no fluke.

Its latest production, “Joe: A Filipino Rock’sical,” is a well-conceptualized original Filipino musical that attempts to show the relevance of the country’s national hero Jose Rizal to the Facebook-ing Filipinos of today.

Written and directed by Vince Tañada, who is also PSF’s artistic director, “Joe” is ambitiously presented as a musical-within-a-musical and, for the most part, succeeds as theatrical “edutainment,” dispensing history lessons in a very enjoyable way.

“Joe” actually revolves around five friends, who, as high school students at the fictional Rizal Integrated School, were tasked to mount a school production about Rizal.

Twelve years later, Joe Castillo Jr. or JoeCas (also played by Tañada), who wrote and directed that school play, has been commissioned to do a Rizal production and calls on his old classmates to help him: historical researcher Joanne (Cindy Maree Liper), who is now his girlfriend; composer Hunter (Jordan Ladra), choreographer Bimbo (Kierwin Larena), set designer Ambo (Chin Ortega) and costume designer Julia (Adele Ibarrientos).

They all stay in the condo of JoeCas for six months – “Ako si Big Brother,” he says – while they brainstorm about the musical. The setup also allows them to resolve whatever issues they have with each other since high school.

The play in their minds

As they discuss and debate about the production, the actual scenes play out in the background -- or are visualized via video projection -- changing depending on their whims and creative urges. Think “Ang Babae sa Septic Tank” done live onstage. For instance, when Bimbo, now a professional DJ, proposes to modernize the treatment, they come up with a musical number inspired by Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.”

And when they discuss rumors about Rizal – that he’s supposedly gay and that his girlfriend Josephine Bracken was a slut – the characters also take on such characteristics, which easily elicited hearty laughs from the young audience.

It must be said that PSF’s core audience consists mainly of high school students, which helps explain the need to verbalize some of the key messages “Joe” hopes to impart to the youth.

Despite this, one has to commend Tañada for not being outright preachy, weaving these messages into the dialogue or in the lyrics of the songs, instead of resorting to plain speeches.

Although the book can be further tightened, Tañada has seamlessly integrated Rizaliana into the story line, without losing track of the main conflicts among the characters or allowing history to takeover the entire proceedings.

His thesis that we are all – or can be – like the hero (note the names of the two main characters, JoeCas and Joanne) and that we, in our simple daily lives, also face the same dilemmas Rizal had to confront, was delivered in a simple and understandable manner, despite the complex plotting.

The music by Pipo Cifra may not really be categorized as “rock” – it’s still more pop – but many of the songs are easy on the ears.

The set, mainly a spacious living room of a condo, with a large window, is also well-designed, with the play-within-the-play acted out with the window framing that second stage. More importantly, the set changes were smooth and quick – and drew oohs from the young crowd.

Variety show flavor

There were instances when the lights whitened out the video projections but that can be remedied in future runs. Ditto with the sound, with the taped orchestrations drowning out the actors most of the time.

But while the concept of “Joe” works in general, the musical can be just too busy at times and it was over-choreographed by John San Antonio. Again perhaps this is an accommodation to PSF’s target audience such that the production numbers had to cram so many people onstage like a TV variety show. Even a ballad number had two performers doing an interpretative contemporary dance in the background, which I found unnecessary, even distracting. Moreso when the dancers couldn’t execute the moves and lifts effortlessly.

I also could not understand why a two-and-a-half hour musical had to be presented without intermission.

But despite such quibbles, “Joe” certainly has the makings of a long-running hit. And it’s a welcome addition to the growing number of original plays on Rizal.

“Joe” will have performances on July 29, Sunday, at 8 am, 11 am, 2 pm and 4pm at Tanghalang Pasigueño. Watch out for more shows in selected SM malls soon.