Thursday ∗ 01 Aug 2013

The risk of “Katy”*

Is its age.

There is something extraordinary of course about having the music of “Katy” jammed in my head. Like muscle memory the first strains of music from the live band had me tapping my feet and bobbing my head. The lyrics came rushing back soon enough.

If it were just the music, this production would absolutely hold up. First staged in 1987, with music that Ryan Cayabyab himself says was both within the style of the life and times of the real Katy dela Cruz, though “not 100 percent,” there is every reason to restage this production again and again. The context remains this: the time and money spent by too many of our theater companies, old and new, on foreign texts instead of original Pinoy ones. But also there is the continued relevance of the period within which Katy’s story happens, where we become privy to how the bodabil’s undoing meant lives unraveling, where entertainment is proven to, but fall prey to, national crises and oppressions.

Certainly this remains important, and must be seen still by every Pinoy. That doesn’t mean of course that it will work.

The original musical redux
Granted that the music is still beautiful, and this cast holds a candle to the original one, there was something slow about its current unfolding. There’s an added layer of datedness, that is not so much about the text itself, and not at all about the story, as it is about this staging.

That is, sets that just seemed too one dimensional for comfort, choreography that was far from being creative regardless of the periods within which these exist, the costumes that looked too costume-y instead of real. There is of course the escape of saying that this was exactly how this was done years ago. The answer to that of course is the fact that an audience in the present might deserve better.

Cultural productions develop with the times, and this is not to say that “Katy” should’ve gone all high tech on us, as it seemed that there was a lack of imagination in making the production more attuned to the present. Currency need not sacrifice content after all, as it can just be about taking into consideration the kind of theater work that’s been done since the first “Katy” staging, given similar subject matter. Easily, the comparison is one that happens against Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Stageshow.” And production-wise, if not in terms of direction, this “Katy” run just fails in comparison.

Yet, there is also the fact that for some reason, you do not get lost in this “Katy.” You will get touched, and you will laugh out loud, but you will not be pushed to embrace this story and its characters. It was not for lack of talent in this cast, as it seemed to be a lackadaisical staging. Where the parts of the set moved slowly and the cast seemed to have difficulty swiftly navigating that stage. The night I saw it at the Meralco Theater, the lighting was also completely off, and not just in terms of the strange blues and pinks that it kept using; the lights also kept missing the mark, the darn spotlight couldn’t follow actors’ movements, and there was a darkness to that stage that just seemed … sad.

There was also the fact of Dulce playing the role of Olivia, Katy’s rival of sorts. This was a miscast difficult to get over, where she just seemed too old to a rival really, of either young woman Katy (Aicelle Santos) or adult woman Katy (Isay Alvarez). As such, every time Olivia would appear on that stage was just cognitive dissonance against any Katy at all. If not any member of that mostly young cast.

One can’t help but wonder how much better this could’ve been directed, how wonderful it would’ve been to reconfigure it some, merge some scenes and kill some others, if only to make it move more quickly. Given the talent that was on that stage, this imagined “Katy” would’ve been fantastic.

Talent, just talent
What the production and direction lacked, the actors and actresses on that stage made up for. There are big shoes to fill for anyone in this cast, especially for the three actresses who play Katy. The original had Mitch Valdez and Tenten Muñoz; this one has Isay Alvarez, Aicelle Santos and Leana Tabunar. Gian Magdangal takes on the role of Peping, Katy’s husband, which was originally played by Marco Sison. Tirso Cruz III does the role of Katy’s father, originally done by Bernardo Bernardo.

They are the reasons why you should watch this production. The little Katy in Tabunar sets the tone for the two other Katys, where she is the perfectly high-spirited spit of a girl who can growl her way into anything. Katy was daring dreamer, who knew to make things happen for herself; Tabunar had the chutzpah – and the voice – to make this young girl her own.

Alvarez as the adult Katy will be a departure from the little girl that Tabunar creates, and there is less of the joy in her, owing as well to the kind of life adult Katy would find herself living. Alvarez’s Katy navigates contradictions by not dealing with them, refusing to believe her husband’s infidelity even as she refuses to be a martyr, loving her father at the same time that she seeks independence, keeping to familiar old friends even as she dreams of bigger and larger. Alvarez as such shifts quite seamlessly from a Katy in crisis to one who will perform like there’s no tomorrow on stage; that the latter is just brilliant, well, that is Alvarez’s gift.

But it is Santos who is a surprise here, if only because for a first foray into theater, she knocked it out of the ballpark. And yes, we expected her to do the singing like she was breathing, but her Katy also needed to evolve from young and spritely, to mature adult; she was going from excitable new star to confident star of the show; she also needed to be consistently kind-hearted, with a love for her father that knew no bounds.

Santos was all of this, and when I say that I mean that she was superb. When she needed to be funny she was absolutely so, her antics believable even as they were over-the-top. The more emotional moments with her father, the kilig with Peping, the independent streak that was in her singing, and which her singing allowed her, were done succinctly by Santos. You forget that it is her, and that is a wondrous thing for someone who is on popular TV.

Pip’s show
But this was Cruz’s show, he who appears on that stage and takes your heart. While Katy is allowed to age given three different actresses, Pip does the aging all by himself, and does it without blinking. He didn’t miss a beat and did the comedy that is in the stereotype of the strict Pinoy father without making the character unlikeable. In fact, you will sympathize most with this character because it is played by Cruz, where in the moments when the tatay shows disappointment in Katy, in the instances when the character demands love that is quiet and compassionate (instead of screaming in a daughter’s ear about propriety), it becomes a world where a father’s caring is all that matters.

For someone who was always moving slower than everybody else across that stage, it is Cruz’s portrayal of the tatay that seemed to be in constant evolution. And no, this was not just because of aging that was done well, as it was about the process of becoming father, that caring for a growing child – one with an independent streak at that – demands. In the scenes where he is saddened by what Katy wants to do or has done, Cruz’s tatay slouches in defeat, speaks with disappointment. Exasperated by Katy, Cruz’s tatay falls back on witty retorts that work at creating comedy only because his timing’s perfect. By the time he sings “Tingnan Mo Nga Naman,” Cruz will have you tearing up, singing as he does about the nostalgia of Katy’s childhood, and the belief in her strength in the present, in the way we imagine our father would.

There is too, for “Katy” an ensemble that passes the test of dancing and singing which this musical demands with flying colors. It seemed too large a stage for all of them to fill up at any given time, but in the better choreographed numbers like Tap Show, that cast shows us all why they are part of this musical: they’ve got the spirit of those times coursing through their veins. In these few instances you could be transported to the life and times of Katy dela Cruz, jazz legend, Filipina icon, national treasure. The rest of the time we are just reminded of how much talent – the band included – we have in this country, and in that theater with too many empty seats, just how much Katy’s life as entertainer continues to echo for the present.

That is reason enough to see it.

“Katy” is a Spotlight Artists Centre production, directed by Nestor Torre, with a libretto by Jose Javier Reyes and music composed by Ryan Cayabyab. The Asosasyon ng Pilipinong Musikero (AMP) band performed the live music with musical director Mel Villena. The show is on its last weekend at the Meralco Theater with an 8 p.m. show on August 2, and 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. shows for August 3 and August 4.

This was previously published in GMA News OnlineAugust 1 2013.

Posted in: arts and culture, entablado, kultura, teatro

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