Review: Isay, Tirso shine in indestructible 'Katy'

Posted at 01/19/13 2:13 PM

Isay Alvarez (center) lead the cast of "Katy" in the rousing opening number "Ang Entablado ay Mundo" at the press preview last Wednesday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

MANILA, Philippines -- Inspired performances, particularly from Isay Alvarez and Tirso Cruz III, helped lift the restaging of the original Filipino musical, "Katy," which had a shaky start at its press preview last Wednesday at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

Nearly 25 years since its debut at the now defunct Rizal Theater in Makati in November 1988, the musical, created by composer Ryan Cayabyab and librettist Jose Javier Reyes, lived up to its reputation as among the finest original Filipino musicals ever written.

Reyes' book stayed with the primary aim of telling the story of bodabil star Katy dela Cruz, while providing choiced glimpses of that particular era and art form, as well as some of the personalities, including a young Mary Walter, then a sexy Hawaiian dancer; a young Dolphy; and a very young Gloria Romero.

The dialogue was witty and didn't feel too extended, although the number "Luha sa Kinalimutang Lupa," an emotional plea by the performers amid the Japanese Occupation, felt more -- and I'm guessing here -- like an extension of the nationalistic spirit awakened by the 1986 EDSA Revolution, considering that was the prevailing sentiment at the time "Katy" was being written.

Cayabyab's score is just as praise-worthy. Not only did Cayabyab show off his jazz side, there is also more structure to his score without losing its commercial appeal. His use of reprises and song motifs hark back to the classic Broadway style so you end up humming the tunes as you exit the theater.

"Katy" also featured some of his best compositions. "Ang Entablado ay Mundo" has become a instant classic that celebrates the theater, while "Minsan ang Minahal ay Ako" is that rare love song that works on many levels, much like "What I Did for Love" from "A Chorus Line." "Sari-Saring Babae" is a funny, teasing group number that is so Filipino in sentiment.

Unimaginative staging

The Philippine Daily Inquirer's theater critic Gibbs Cadiz described the material as "indescructible."

Indeed, Reyes' writing and Cayabyab's score are so strong, such that, coupled with some truly outstanding performances, one can gloss over the production's many faults and still earn a standing ovation.

Nestor Torre may have directed the original staging of "Katy," but this time around, in a new venue that has several technical limitations, the overall direction was largely unimaginative, with slow scene changes -- including one that lasted for what seemed like minutes with absolutely nothing happening onstage, not even music -- and way too many blackouts that broke up the flow of the musical. This was made even more glaring because of Reyes' crisp writing. The individual scenes are so tightly written that these numerous blackouts literally stop whatever momentum had been built.

The production numbers do soar, with the AMP Big Band providing an authentic jazz feel, aided by some energetic choreography, but the scenes don't move seamlessly to the next as one would expect -- especially 25 years after the original.

The set design is embarrassing even if the intention is to approximate the feel of the bodabil. Come to think of it, the program doesn't credit anyone for the sets. When Katy storms the house of her husband
and his latest girlfriend, this was represented by a badly painted flat wall that was too small for the stage such that some of the audience were laughing.

During the liberation, the Americans made their entrance on a riser plastered with an image of a war-era military jeep that wasn't even in the right perspective.

Although we constantly hear about budget problems in the theater, other groups have created less elaborate but highly functional and even beautiful sets.

Outstanding performances

Fortunately, actors like Alvarez can perform on an empty stage and still be riveting.

Isay Alvarez (center) and the cast during the curtain call of "Katy" at the press preview last Wednesday at the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com

 Alvarez, who was obviously not well that night, was the heart and soul of the musical, even if basically she just appears in the second act. (She was in the prologue.) Although I've seen Alvarez sing jazz standards in some of her concerts, I was still taken by her sheer intensity and focus in big band numbers like "Aba, Ba, Ba, Boogie" and "Basta't Masasayaw." There was power in her voice and she perfectly captured the sassiness of dela Cruz.

By having three actresses in the role representing the various ages of dela Cruz -- as a child, as a newcomer in theater and as a veteran -- one can clearly see the progression of her talent and personality. In that regard, Aicelle Santos as the newcomer Katy, gave a nicely controlled performance that showed glimpses of Katy's natural talent, which fully develops once Alvarez takes over the role.

But the real surprise of "Katy" was former matinee idol Tirso Cruz III as Katy's protective father. This was just an excellent performance overall with Cruz walking the fine line between grumpy old man and a loving parent.

The rest of the cast, which includes Dulce, Lou Veloso, and the trio of Tricia Jimenez, Celine Fabie and CJ Mangahis, also deserve mention, although Gian Magdangal as Katy's philandering husband was puzzling in the later scenes as the audience is not sure if the character never fully recovered from his illness or is showing very early signs of old age.

With only two weekends of performances, "Katy" is still a must-see for avid theater fans who failed to see the original. Still one wished for a thorough update, instead of a dated restaging, much like what Tanghalang Pilipino did to "Noli Me Tangere" with Audie Gemora as director.

"Katy" runs at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines until January 27.