BWW Reviews: Less is More for NYMFÂ's PRISON DANCER
One of New York Musical Theatre Festival's (NYMF) fastest-selling shows, "Prison Dancer," an original screenplay turned into a web series turned into a stage musical by Romeo Candido (music, lyrics, and book) and Carmen de Jesus (book), veers away from the hugeness of its viral hit inspiration - a video uploaded to YouTube in 2007 that boasts around 1,500 male inmates of Cebu, Philippines' Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center dancing in sync with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" - by using its two-hour storytelling to explore more about the personal lives of a handful, fictitious prisoners instead, interspersed with a lively dose of Filipino cultural and religious quirks, and with a heavy R&B/club-ish score not often used for a musical.
Lola, an adorable cross-dresser (played by Jeigh Madjus who exudes a gay demeanor that is not wildly exaggerated), clad in a long nightgown adorned with fuschia feathers, which is later disrobed to reveal an orangey coloured short shorts and sports bra getup, opens and narrates the show told almost entirely in flashback. His Greek chorus-duo of sorts, Oo Oo (played by Nathan Ramos) and Nana (played by EnRico Rodriguez), the only two characters that do not have backstories, are reliable comic sidekicks, back-up singers and dancers.
Inside prison walls, the audience members - a diverse mix - are introduced to the facility's other four inhabitants: Hookaps, the tough boys' anointed leader (played by Marc Delacruz who channels boxing superstar Manny Pacquiao); Tondo, a supposedly isolated death-row inmate who faces execution in two months (played by Albert Guerzon who is given a longer exposure time here compared to his current job at "Ghost" on Broadway), strangely so, freely interacts and dances with his fellow convicts; Shakespeare, Lola's object of affection and dance partner (played by Moses Villarama who turns in a finely nuanced and bold performance; and who also doubles as the production's acoustic guitarist when the spotlight dims on him); and Christian, the anti-social, introverted new kid on the block (played by Broadway veteran Jose Llana whose solo number in Act Two, "Typhoon," brings out the toughest, strongest vocal performance from the actor).
Lending support, a.k.a. non-dancing actors, are Andrew Eisenman who plays the techy warden that elects Lola to teach the inmates some groovy moves as part of their daily exercise routine, whose video footage he would anxiously share with the online world via YouTube; and Marcus Calderon who plays the ineluctable, emotionless cellblock's guard.
"Mamma Mia!" on Broadway's current cast member Catherine Ricafort, who plays Cherish, Christian's girlfriend who believes in evergreen love stories, lights up the stage whenever she is on it; hers is a sweet singing voice that can get thicker, deeper when needed. Ricafort and Llana look smashing together.
The musical's creative and production team's intimate approach works well on that small performance space at the Theatre at St. Clements, which effectively depicts the play's setting of a supposedly crowded prison through the functional use of Josh Zangen's movable jail bars and makeshift brick walls, and Betsy Adams' consistently sparse lighting, which helps evoke a sordid milieu amid the overnight social media fame of its occupants.
I personally find myself wanting for a big signature dance number that is expected from dance-oriented musicals though, i.e. the rip-roaring swing dances in "Memphis" or the endless turns and pirouettes in "Newsies," which, on second thought, could be a bit far-fetched because of the production's intimate nature.