It’s good to be a theater fan in 2019. We were spoiled for options. Incredible ones. Some of note include Blue Rep’s stunning staging of Spring Awakening (directed by Missy Maramara) that is full of youthful verve, fresh staging of local lores that reintroduce them to new audiences (The Quest for the Adarna, Lam-Ang), jukebox reruns that only get better with age (Rak of Aegis, Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!), and returning musical theater blockbusters that still make them must-sees, decades later (The Phantom of the Opera, Cats).
But amid all these, five productions stood out this year as the best sampling of their genre:
5. “Beautiful” (Atlantis Theatrical Entertainment Group)
Jukebox musicals have been reigning supreme in the last couple of years. There have been hits and misses, sure, but Beautiful—the Carole King musical—is definitely on the ‘hits’ pile. It’s director Bobby Garcia making bold decisions and seeing it pay off to astounding effect: the quirky pattern-on-pattern set design by Faust Peneyra that captures the aesthetic of the era; Cecile Martinez’s choreography that harken back to blissful reminiscences of vaudeville and variety shows of old, Raven Ong’s delectable costumes that show the 60’s are a distinctly fab and fashionable decade, noteworthy performances from George Schulze, Mikkie Bradshaw-Volante, Arman Ferrer, and Gab Pangilinan. It was a fun party and showed the very best of musicals as pure entertainment.
4. “Dani Girl” (The Sandbox Collective)
Dani Girl is the show you see if you need a good cry. It’s not a happily ever after sort of story but it’s utterly cathartic–and audiences feel that sort of release because of how well performed it was with the technique Rebecca Coates showed (always a privilege to hear her hauntingly beautiful voice) and the instinct and charm Felicity Kyle Napuli brought as alternates. The supporting cast were also giving exemplary performances. Director Toff De Venecia, who has directed this show previously, showed how well he knew the material and melded the dark truth and the childlike wonder to bring about one of the best shows of the year.
3. “Stop Kiss” (New Voices Company)
Director Ed Lacson Jr.’s productions have an ineffable quality about them; a polish and daring you don’t quite see anywhere else. You see it in Stop Kiss— a budding love story between two women who meet and work through a horrific attack–an artistry that makes every scene look and feel as though living artwork. The set in shocking pink ensconced inside a black square, transitions by way of a panel shifting back and forth, straight-forward and compelling you to focus. And when you do, you are rewarded with a tender, emotional romance performed impeccably by Missy Maramara and Jenny Jamora.
2. “Himala: Isang Musikal” (The Sandbox Collective)
Ironically, watching Himala: Isang Musikal is almost a religious experience–like you’re witnessing something bigger than yourself. It hasn’t lost its potency in its second run. If anything, it seemed a more powerful thing this time around. It feels less about this one person and her big con, but more about this town as a microcosm of our country and what happens with blind faith. A genuine hand-to-god masterpiece. The parting scene of Cupang’s townspeople kneeling in surrender and worship to a self-divined Elsa might be one of the most powerful scenes on stage to date. Also directed by Ed Lacson Jr.
1. “Katsuri” (Tanghalang Pilipino)
Nearly every show staged these days have an accompanying advocacy, and for Katsuri, it’s to shed awareness to the plight of land workers, where government oversight is non-existent and the abuse and exploitation of labourers are facts of life. These atrocities—largely regional—are often overlooked, but Katsuri humanizes these newspaper headlines to show that all people have worth and deserve dignity, and how little they are actually given. It’s a masterful adaptation from Bibeth Orteza’s recontextualization of Steinbeck’s classic, to the overt theatricality in Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s direction. Meticulously performed and crafted by its artistic team. It’s an example of the heights theater can achieve, and has.