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On This Side of the World, now playing at Access Theatre, has a cast that would make any production green with envy. From song to song they deliver both a technical high gloss and a go for broke sincerity. They perform with the conviction of actors who know that what they're undertaking is important and, indeed, it is. What is offered by this hour and a half long song cycle is a rare ground floor view of the lives of the Filipino community. However, this gloss doesn't just describe the technical quality of the musicianship of both the cast and orchestra, but also the manufactured sheen of the musical composition, which investigates little.

Over the course of the cycle composer Paulo Tiról has moments of charm and witty insights that inject personality into the characters. While tonally "Rice Queens" comes out of nowhere in the first act, it is an engaging display of one's capacity to exploit fetishization. Michael Protacio spins smilingly through the song, simultaneously aware and dismissive of the consequences of his capitulation. It's something of a "Glitter and be Gay" by way of Kander and Ebb. In a haunting duet Jaygee Macapugay and Joanne Javien sing "Light of the Home." It is a complicated look at gender roles in the Philippines as compared to The United States. The two performers earnestly judge the women who are living lives separate from their spouses and children and ask us to empathize with their condemnation. I do not agree with their convictions. This contrast makes their cathartic perspective usefully loaded.

Act 2 is generally stronger than the first, leaving space for characters rather than relying on broad prompts. Opening the second act is the program's highlight, "Ay, Amerika," which is a delight from beginning to end. It is premised on two titas, church ladies, gossiping at mass. It is full of social in jokes, un-flinching characterization, and fabulous on stage chemistry. The two titas, Diane Phelan and Joanne Javien, are constant delights. Jaygee Macapugay later has her own chance to steal the show in the wonderful charm song, "Yaya."

Save "Rice Queens" the men have been burdened with the gloomier ballads. For them the songs reach a max speed of "moderate." Compositionally these ballads have a PSA obviousness, rarely offering a window into a complex individual personality. The composer has written a wide spectrum of experiences, but composed a narrow emotional range. Musically the ballads employ two moods: regret and determination, to underline the character's circumstances. Emotions that musically go unexamined, but could find space in the work, include exhaustion, repressed resentment, and loneliness.

Director Noam Shapiro kept all elements humming through the performance, gainfully leaning in the tonal direction necessitated by the work. Ian Miller did stellar work as music director leading a phenomenal group of onstage musicians. Annie Le kept the mood appropriately light with her costume design. Melanie May created a thematically potent, and incredibly versatile set. Lighting design by Ethan Olsen was creative and concocted a remarkable deal of energy from a limited lighting grid. Sound design by Lawrence Schober was crystal clear and well balanced, a difficult feat with power ballads in a small room. On This Side of the World has the technical know how and the right intentions. With a round of editing or some increased emotional maturity, it could be extraordinary.

Photo Credit: Lia Chang

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From This Author Wesley Doucette