Friday, December 7, 2012

A Magic Carpet Ride

In the continuing saga of Culture Vulturing, Mara and I went to see the opening night of Atlantis Productions' Disney's Aladdin: The New Stage Musical. It was a brand-new, Asian premiere staging of the successful Disney animated feature, expanded with new songs and a few storyline tweaks.

Essaying the title role was PBB's Tom Rodriguez, in his first theater outing, with chanteuse K-la Rivera (who I often confuse with Karylle) playing Jasmine.

I had high hopes for this production, expecting a rousing, rollicking time. I eagerly anticipated an expanded musical version of the tale of the young street rat from Agrabah overcoming poverty and adversity through a combination of sheer luck and street-smart pluck. And I was ready to hum new melodies, ones as self-consciously campy as Prince Ali and as soaring as A Whole New World.

Of course, the Disney movie was helped immeasurably by the great fortune of having the irrepressible Robin Williams in the role of the wisecracking, madcap Genie. But Atlantis had Aiza Seguerra in the role, and  my curiosity was piqued as to how she would interpret a character so thoroughly owned by Williams.


And so Mara and I braved the daunting stretch of EDSA on a Friday payday, leaving early enough to make it to Meralco Theater with time to spare. Not wanting to cool our heels in Meralco's stale, cold lobby - which only lacked coffins and the baleful glare of standing lamps to become fully-funereal - we repaired to a nearby Chef & Brewer for some pre-show latt├ęs.

Showtime rolled around soon enough and we found ourselves back in Funeraria Quiogue - I'm sorry, the lobby of the Meralco Building. There was a smattering of schoolchildren being herded by a couple of harassed-looking teachers, one else.

Mara and I looked at each other and I kept inspecting our tickets to make sure we had the right date, time, and venue. Having confirmed all three, we loitered around the echoing hall waiting for people to trickle in. And presently they did, but as the 8:00 p.m. showtime ticked closer and closer, the crowd did not grow accordingly.

Eventually the house opened its doors and we filed in, Mara and I as resigned as a Juden couple in line for a one-way trip to Buchenwald. The children, on the other hand, trilled with laughter and excitement, blissfully unaware of what awaited us all once inside the caverns of the Meralco Theater. 


It was early enough for us to plop down for a spell in the kiosk area, where a small excited commotion shortly occurred starring Marvin Agustin.

"I don't recall him being in the cast," I genuinely wondered at Mara.

Mara, who actually dabbles in showbiz, indulgently answered. "He probably just took his twins to see the play."

"He has a twin?" I asked incredulously, visions of gay twincest swimming in my lecherous mind.

"He has twins," Mara corrected.


Well, silly me. I really haven't kept track of the progeny of showbiz people since Sharon popped out the Holy Infant That Was Destined To be Heartbroken By Papa Piolo.


Soon the ushers started making announcements and herded everyone into the gas chambers, errr the main theater area. I hadn't been to Meralco in ages and had to gasp at how spacious it was; a true Cave of Wonders compared to the too-cozy-for-comfort relic that is the CCP.

Mara and I made our way to our seats - front row and very near but not quite center aisle. Those two coveted seats were presently occupied by two young women, whose winsome charms obviously were not enough to convince their beaus to watch the show.

We settled in and I looked back at the vast expanse of pink seats stretching out behind us and seemingly into infinity - all missing an audience. 

"I'm pretty sure these were corporate seats," Mara offered, noticing how crestfallen I was at the lack of butts filling those seats.

"Yes, but where's everyone?" 

"Sometimes people just don't use their tickets," Mara continued. "Even when they've been bought by the office."

I slunk down into my seat, depressed at this new knowledge. Nevertheless, I kept hoping against hope that seven busloads of schoolchildren were just stuck in the Friday traffic, but as the chimes started playing hope started evaporating like a Genie's misty trail.

I was shaken out of my glumness by the blare of the opening number as the curtain rose. Where was the effin' flag ceremony? I'm not a big fan of standing up for the Lupang Hinirang and all but I know you're supposed to play it at the start of any public performance.

Perhaps the Atlantis staff were too morose at the disappointing turnout that in their despair, they totally forgot about honoring the flag and all that jazz.

Anyway, audience or no audience, the show must go on. And go on it did, without the National Anthem.


To the familiar strains of Arabian Nights, three characters riding hobbyhorses made to look like camels galumphed onstage. So...hobbycamels, I guess? Or more like hobbled camels, the way they were clip-clopping across the stage before breaking the fourth wall and dispensing of the clumsy props altogether.

Anyway, on with the story revisions. In this stage version, Aladdin has the aforementioned trio of troubadours - Babkak, Omar, and Kassim - instead of the original annoying pet/sidekick combo of Abu. Once together, their quartet was supposedly known as Al's Bag of Tricks or whatever. But they didn't play Barber's Adagio for Strings, Op.11.


This troublesome trio of troubadours did triple-duty  - not just taking over Abu's role - but as comic reliefs and as a gestalt version of the show's narrator, as well. Imagine Evita's Che being composed of three bumbling, vaguely-Arabic buffoons, and you get the idea. (One of these buffoons was an unrecognizable and unheralded Jamie Wilson, I would discover later. I thought all the while he looked curiously like Rafa DInglasan.)

     Image from here. Photo: Raul Montesa

Other deviations from the animated version include the transformation of Iago, Jafar's screechy sidekick, from a parrot to human (theater veteran Jimmy Marquez).

( Curiously, Atlantis' pre-show website indicated that Iago - and I'm assuming the rest of the animals featured in the original movie - was to be "brought to life by skillful puppeteers." I wonder whether cost or technical issues - or a combination of both - led them to just simply turn the grating-but-personality-filled bird into a feckless human sidekick.)

The villain Jafar (Miss Saigon alumnus Raul Montesa) was sufficiently over-the-top wicked and imposing, not too far from the movie portrayal. In contrast, fellow Saigon alumnus Jun Ofrasio's Sultan was played, not as a childlike-but-jocular old fool, but straight and therefore, boring.

Thankfully, Jasmine remained a misunderstood, misanthropic pill.


At any rate, the true gem of this production was its lead star, Tom Rodriguez. I didn't know this guy from Adam and yet I thought he nailed the part of Aladdin down to a T, from the looks, the body language, and a surprising singing voice that uncannily sounded like Brad Kane (Aladdin's singing voice in the movie version.)

With these gifts, Rodriguez convincingly embodied the title character's wounded innocence and hopeful longing coupled with street-urchin mischievousness. At no point did I think he was an actor playing Aladdin; he was Aladdin.

An impressive feat for a theater neophyte in his first role - a starring one at that. 

Because he's easy on the eyes and an ex-reality show heartthrob, it's easy to dismiss Tom Rodriguez as just another pretty face that got cast primarily on his looks. But if there were any doubts as to the wisdom of his casting, his earnest, captivating performance laid them all to rest, in my humble layman's opinion. 

Indeed, to paraphrase one of his many numbers: 

"If only they'd look closer
Would they see the boy from PBB
They'd find out
There's so much more to me"


K-la, on the other hand, made for a lovely Princess Jasmine. Her voice was clear and strong, but, like Karylle in Rama Hari, she was plagued with a crappy mic that popped and emitted feedback throughout the show. It reminded me of Madonna's mic cutting out in Truth Or Dare , with her demanding in the end to be put on the channel of her backup singers, who suffered no such technical glitches.

     Image from here. Photo: Raul Montesa

Nevertheless, there was genuine chemistry between the two leads, and the spark and sparkle gave the show a much-needed frisson that made up for its less-impressive sections.


As  mentioned earlier, I was curious as to how diminutive Aiza Seguerra (alternating with the heftier Calvin Millado) would tackle the larger-than-life role of The Genie. Cleverly playing to her strengths, Seguerra's interpretation was of a smirking, wish-wielding smart-ass. Think of her acerbic Gary Coleman in Avenue Q, put him in pantaloons and sweeten him a bit, and you have Seguerra's Genie.

     Image from here. Photo: Raul Montesa

Sadly, Aiza's pipes - so tender in her own ballads - simply weren't up to the herculean vocal requirements and the frenetic lyrics of the Genie's numbers, particularly the signature Friend Like Me. Her spirit was huge but her small frame simply could not project enough power in her voice, and she'd skid down to earth on the low notes. 

Contrast that with Tom Rodriguez' strong and confident vocal consistency throughout the show, and it's clear that the upstart in what should be the show's buddy-buddy pairing is the reality-show alumnus.


Because they had done away with the talking animals and thus, a good deal of the magic, I wasn't expecting to see the Magic Carpet anymore. Which only made its surprise appearance in the signature A Whole New World number all the more magical.

Rodriguez, as Prince Ali, steps off a rolling platform depicting the balcony outside Jasmine's boudoir after being rejected by her. She gasps and, as in the movie, he rises out of nowhere. He explains he's standing on a Magic Carpet, and K-la, after some coaxing, steps onto it. 

The platform then rolls away, to reveal the two leads floating way on high.

     Image from here. Photo: Raul Montesa


And there. There was magic - literally in the air.

That, to me, was the high point of the show - no pun intended. I know it was a simple matter of cables and pulleys, but I was so happy to see them on the iconic Magic Carpet, as they sang that beautiful, beautiful duet. 

So happy, in fact, that I was transported into that magical place that theater sometimes makes possible. I was grinning like a child with stars in his eyes, and the sight of the two - singing beautifully, courageously while suspended 20 feet in the air - made up for the earlier disappointments in the lack of an audience, the iffy changes in the story, and the various other minor letdowns.


The trouble with heights, of course, is it's all downhill from there.

Mara and I could've walked out of the theater after that point with our money's worth and without missing much of anything. But since I already felt sorry for the cast at the low turnout, it was the least we could do to soldier along with them to the end.

Besides, the fact that we were seated up front in a howling wilderness of a theater, and that even in the low light Mara was literally sparkling like a Maharajah's crown, would make our exit about as inconspicuous as a Congressman abusing his pork barrel.

I'm glad we stayed, though, if only for the startled look on Aiza Seguerra's face when she popped up in the orchestra pit right smack in front of us. It was supposed to be a surprise for the audience, but the Genie herself got surprised when she was nearly blinded by the jewels glittering around Mara's neck. The spotlight illuminating Aiza spilled onto the front rows, and the Swarovskis reflected the beams right back at her like little HID headlights. 

According to Mara, at that point even Tom Rodriguez, sitting onstage, seemed spellbound by her scene-stealing bling-bling.

     Image from here. Photo: Raul Montesa

I couldn't tell. I was too busy being transfixed by his bellybutton.

Let's just see that again. For science.


Overall, the magic of Aladdin was tempered by the prosaic requirements of real-life staging. With the sumptuous sets and massive casting of, say, Resorts World's ongoing The King and I , the spectacular tale of a poor young lad swept up by forces into a madcap adventure of grand destiny would've been more magnificent, more splendid, more...magical.

Alas, despite Atlantis' deep pockets (I assume they must be, if they can afford the Disney licensing, not just for Aladdin, but for their previous and upcoming offerings - Beauty and the BeastThe Little MermaidTarzan, and The Addams Family among them - as well), there was no Genie in the bottle to grant these wishes.

Yet the cast and crew of Aladdin: The New Stage Musical - like its namesake - valiantly did their best with what they had. And in the end, while that may not have been enough to make the show a smash, they did deliver two solid hours of fun, entertainment, and yes - magic.

For me, witnessing the first night of Tom Rodriguez' theatrical debut was its own reward. The lad's got looks, presence, and talent, and if there were to be the limits of a Genie's granted wishes, then he's got more than enough.

Look at the skies, for a star is born.

Here's to a whole new world of more stage performances from this guy.

     Image from here. Photo: Raul Montesa

You can still catch Tom Rodriguez' mesmerizing bellybutton in Aladdin: The New Stage Musical's last shows tomorrow, Dec. 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and on Sunday, Dec. 9, 2012, at 3:00 pm.

Call Ticketworld at 891-9999. Or Google Atlantis Productions' hotline, you lazy bums.


  1. i'm surprised how much new theatre productions have come out this year.

    manila's becoming artsy.

    1. An embarrassment of riches, as someone once said.