By Mark A. Newman
The New York Musical Theatre Festival has done it again. Every time I attend a production, I walk away amazed at the talent on the sparse stages as well as the creative talent behind the scenes. This year the hot ticket is based on a viral YouTube video of Filipino prisoners dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” While that tune is nowhere to be found in “Prison Dancer: The Musical,” the tunes that are included are just as dance-worthy.
Written by Romeo Candido (book, music, and lyrics) and Carmen De Jesus (book), two Filipino actors who both appeared in “Miss Saigon,” their goal was to create a show that had Filipinos playing Filipinos on stage. Mission accomplished! While not based on the specific prison in Cebu, the musical tells how the choreography-inspired exercises brought the inmates closer together, reduced violence, and drew a clear distinction between rehabilitation and punishment. The show has a distinct message but tells it in the most entertaining and original manner I have seen in a while.
The cast—some newbies and some Broadway workhorses—get their Pinoy on and all of the characters are surprisingly well drawn. While the entire cast is outstanding, a true diva has been born on the stage of the Theatre at St. Clement. Jeigh Madjus—a Toronto-based actor—plays the titular role of Lola, a cross-dressing inmate who swishes and struts his stuff yet ably puts down the prison thug with ease. I have never heard of Madjus before but he is nothing short of amazing. What could have been a shrill, irritating performance (i.e., most of the characters in “Priscilla: Queen of the Desert”) became a nuanced, sensitive portrayal of a tortured soul who gets through life with a fresh mouth, lacquered lips, and a kick punch that would render you senseless.
The prisoners are somewhat divided into two groups with Lola being the makeshift leader for the feminine “lady boys” that also includes Oo Oo (Nathan Ramos) and Nana (Enrico Rodriguez). The tough guys’ leader is Hookaps (Marc Delacruz), and includes the doomed Tondo (Albert Guerzon), to a lesser degree Shakespeare (Moses Villarama), and the newly imprisoned Christian (Broadway stalwart Jose Llana). The cast is rounded out by Christian’s girlfriend Cherish (Catherine Ricafort) and the Warden (Andrew Eisenam), who takes credit for the prisoner’s sudden internet fame because it was “his idea.”
While Oo Oo and Nana serve more as a Greek chorus to Lola, the other characters are more deeply developed. Shakespeare is the smart one: reasonable, likable, but harboring a harsh and disturbing secret; Tondo is the murderer on death row who finds a new lust for life through dance; Hookaps is the suave cellblock major domo who’s an expert at acquiring contraband getting things done; and Christian is the stoic lovelorn newbie who wants nothing more than to be with Cherish. How these archetypes intertwine and work together to be a part of an Internet sensation is truly a work of art and takes the audience on an interesting journey that is both joyous and heartbreaking.
Guerzon is enlightening as Tondo, the “dead man dancing” who’s new quest to live is at times desperate and joyful. As Hookaps, Delacruz brings a cool authoritative demeanor to the cell block and his realization that prison is the only place he belongs has a sad acquiescence and makes the character vastly likable. Also, Delacruz is a great dancer and is fun to watch. Villarama’s Shakespeare fits the bill as the show’s “everyman” because he’s so darn nice. When you find out why he’s in prison it’s hard to be appalled because by that point you’ve really grown fond of the character. Llana, one of Broadway’s Asian-American stars for over a decade, brings a quiet, resigned dignity to the role of Christian while also seemingly on a constant low boil. Is he going to explode? You never quite know but Llana gets the chance to show off his singing chops nicely in a second act solo that all but rattles the stained glass windows in the sanctuary of the Theatre at St. Clements right out of their leading.
“Prison Dancer” is as innovative and passionate a production you are likely to see on Broadway or off, off, off, off Broadway. With a desire to create a show that is strictly unique to the Philippines, Candido and De Jesus have successfully told a story about a forgotten group of people, but the themes of love, loss, redemption, and forgiveness are universal.
Final performances: Friday, Jul 27th, 2012 at 5:00 pm; Saturday, Jul 28th, 2012 at 5:00 pm; and Saturday, Jul 28th, 2012 at 9:00 pm.
Prison Dancer: The Musical
Theatre at St. Clement’s 423 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036
Featuring: Marcus Calderon, Marc Delacruz, Andrew Eisenman, Albert Guerzon, Jose Llana, Jeigh Madjus, Nathan Ramos, Catherine Ricafort, Enrico Rodriguez, and Moses Villarama.
Book by Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus
Music and Lyrics by Romeo Candido
Director/Choreographer: Jenn Rapp
Scenic Design: Josh Zangen
Costume Design: Sky Switser
Lighting Design: Betsy Adams
Sound Design: John Westin
Musical Director: David Madore
Fight Director: Rick Sordelet