Review: Nikki makes you fall in love in new musical

Posted at 02/09/13 3:58 PM

MANILA, Philippines -- WIth her third starring role in a major musical production, Kapamilya talent Nikki Gil proves that she is not just a crossover pop artist lending her star presence to the stage.

Nikki Gil as Sonia Walsk

After making her successful debut in "Legally Blonde" and her lauded follow-up, "Sweet Charity," Gil douses all doubts and establishes herself as a genuine musical performer in 9 Works Theatrical's latest offering, the musical comedy "They're Playing Our Song," which opens Saturday night at RCBC Plaza in Makati City.

As Sonia Walsk, a kooky, apsiring lyricist who can't seem to sever ties with her former boyfriend, Gil takes on her most challenging role to date. Although her singing background guarantees that she will be able to successfully tackle the pop melodies of composer Marvin Hamlisch and lyrics by Carol Bayer Sager, Gil must also deliver as an actress as "They're Playing Our Song," although considered a "light" musical, is essentially a dialogue-heavy, two-character play.

Gil and co-star Lorenz Martinez must carry the entire weight of the play written by the master of wit Neil Simon. And they do -- effortlessly.

First staged on Broadway in 1978, "They're Playing Our Song" follows the love story of an Oscar-winning composer Vernon Gersch (Martinez) and his new lyricist Sonia. But like all successful romantic comedies, their road to romance isn't easy. Despite his success, Vernon is actually insecure about the outspoken Sonia, who wears second-hand clothes from various Broadway productions. Moreover, Sonia continues to communicate with her former boyfriend, Leon -- who the audience never sees -- which further aggravates Vernon's insecurities.

The play is vintage Neil Simon, whose work for the stage and the movies includes "Barefoot in the Park," "The Goodbye Girl" and "Chapter Two." Simon specializes in comedies about the troubled affairs of seemingly mismatched artistic characters, and "They're Playing Our Song" reverberates with his trademark witty and sarcastic dialogue -- a quality that seems to have been lost in recent comedies, which rely more on over-the-top plotting and heavy doses of physical comedy.

Add to this the familiar and light-on-the-ear melodies (Sonia wouldn't hesitate to call this "commercial") such as the pop hit "Fallin'" and you have a musical that can still easily connect and entertain audiences more than 30 years after it was written.

Indeed, audiences at the preview night last Friday were gushing about how much they loved it -- including those who are unfamiliar with previous local stagings, including one starring Tony Award winner Lea Salonga and Singaporean actor Adrian Pang in 2000.

Gil is simply right for the role with her innate classiness and warm sense of femininity. Despite Sonia's many flaws, Gil makes her endearing and adorable without trying. And her pop sensibilities are a perfect match for the score. Her rendition of "I Still Believe in Love" just has the right amount of heartbreak and longing. The music channel MYX, where she is also a VJ, should make a music video with this song.

Martinez, on the other hand, seemed a bit restrained in attacking his leading man role. Although he has proven to be adept in broad comedy in "Forbidden Broadway," Martinez was more internalized, even shy at times. And this allowed the play to be more tender than in the previous stagings, particularly when he sings "Fill in the Words."

Focused on the romance

This unexpected turn is just one of the many surprises from director Robbie Guevarra, who's fondness for comedy is well known. Although he kept the '70s setting of the musical, he wisely veered away from the overt campy aspects of the decade and just focused on the romance and the dialogue. Sure it's fun guessing the inspirations from the "Annie Hall" costumes to the "Saturday Night Fever" choreography and the Jack Nicholson shades. But they never distract from the scene.

Lorenz Martinez and Nikki Gil as Vernon Gersch and Sonia Walsk

Even the use of three males and three females as the "voices" of the two leads were cute without becoming scene-stealers.

Guevarra and set designer Mio Infante, however, outdid themselves with the set, which includes a revolving stage, which is a nod to the turntable and vinyl records of the era, as well as the role of music in the relationship of the two lead characters. Here is one musical with multiple scene changes -- a night club, a country cottage, two different apartments, a hospital room, a recording studio and even a car driving through a highway -- but not once did they lose a beat. In
particular, the drive was cleverly staged, with road signs propped on the revolving stage, while the two characters are seated inside what looks like half of a Mini Cooper.

This is the most realized effort so far from 9 Works Theatrical.

Those who will be seeing "They're Playing Our Song" for the first time will surely enjoy this for the comedy, the songs, the staging and the performances.

Those who have seen it before and who may not feel compelled to watch this version should re-think their decision. Having seen the play twice before and enjoying both, this one definitely brought out the romance.

Be sure to bring a date. It's Valentine's season, after all.

"They're Playing Our Song" runs at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of RCBC Plaza, Makati City until March 3.