Review: PRISON DANCER THE MUSICAL at Ottawa's National Arts Centre

Take my advice and have "no regerts" - don't miss your chance to see Prison Dancer while it’s in Ottawa.

By: Nov. 26, 2023

Prison Dancer the Musical opened this week at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre as part of the NAC’s English Theatre program.  Sometimes, you have a hunch that a show is going to be amazing, even if you know very little about it going in. Written by Carmen Leilani De Jesus and Romeo Candido, and directed by Nina Lee Aquino, Prison Dancer was inspired by a 2007 viral YouTube video where 1,500 inmates in a maximum security prison in Cebu, The Philippines, danced in sync to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. I must have been living under a rock at the time because I have no recollection of this video or the hype that surrounded it. Nevertheless, just by reading the synopsis, I knew I needed to see this show.

Dominique Brilliantes, Josh Capulong, Stephen Thakkar, Julio Fuentes, Norm Alconcel, Chariz Faulmino, Pierre Angelo Bayuga. Set & Props: Joanna Yu, Costumes: Joyce Padua, Lighting: Michelle Ramsay. Photo Dahlia Katz
Dominique Brillantes, Josh Capulong, Stephen Thakkar, Julio Fuentes, Norm Alconcel, Chariz Faulmino, Pierre Angelo Bayuga. Set & Props: Joanna Yu, Costumes: Joyce Padua, Lighting: Michelle Ramsay. Photo Dahlia Katz

Not only is the subject matter compelling, but this show is the first Filipino musical to be produced in Canada. Prison Dancer is set in The Philippines, based on a Filipino story, and created and performed by members of the Canadian-Filipino community. It was first performed at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, which has become known for developing Broadway-bound shows, such as Hadestown and SIX. What makes Prison Dancer different from Here Lies Love, a Broadway show about the Marcos regime in The Philippines, currently in its final weekend, is that the even though Prison Dancer's setting is in The Philippines, the storyline is not uniquely Filipino. The characters’ hardships, struggles, hopes and dreams can be applied to anyone. Likewise, the show’s ultimate message of redemption in the midst of suffering can be relatable to all audiences.

Prison Dancer’s main protagonist is Lola (Julio Fuentes), an openly gay prisoner who often dresses in drag. Lola has successfully recovered from drug addiction through a detoxification method using a combination of music, dance, and sweat. Other major characters include Christian (Daren Dyhengco), the newest inmate, his girlfriend, Cherish (Diana Del Rosario), and the prison's inside drug dealer, Shakespeare (Dominique Brillantes). Supporting characters include Juicy (Renell Doneza), Hookaps (Norm Alconcel), Milky (Pierre Angelo Bayuga), and Tondo (Josh Capulong). After Lola’s impromptu dance number is recorded and uploaded to YouTube, it is unintentionally seen by millions of viewers. Being hailed a genius, the prison’s new warden (Jovanni Sy) selects Lola to lead her fellow prisoners in a larger, choreographed dance to give testimony to the success of his rehabilitation program and the order he has imposed upon the inmates. Participation is mandatory. The dance brings the prisoners closer together, while various personal issues threaten to tear their small world apart.

Diana Del Rosario, Daren Dyhengco. Set & Props: Joanna Yu, Costumes: Joyce Padua, Lighting: Michelle Ramsay. Photo Dahlia Katz.
Diana Del Rosario, Daren Dyhengco. Set & Props: Joanna Yu, Costumes: Joyce Padua, Lighting: Michelle Ramsay. Photo Dahlia Katz.

The cast had amazing chemistry together, especially between Fuentes and Brillantes, and Dyhengco and Del Rosario. The choreography was inventive and made the most of a smaller stage by incorporating scaffolding into the dance numbers. Sets (designed by Joanna Yu) were relatively simple, but effective in conveying prison cells and common areas. Unsurprisingly, Lola had the most eleborate costumes (designed by Joyce Padua), and despite the circumstances, she even found creative ways to accessorize!

The music (by Romeo Candido) is ultra catchy, with some songs still stuck in my head the next morning. Thankfully, Amazon and Spotify both have the soundtrack available on demand, although the recording is much more subdued than the live version. The song styles are all over the map, from poppy tunes to R&B and house music, but it all works well together. The music sound in the theatre sometimes overpowered the vocals and there seemed to be a couple of technical problems with the microphones, which didn’t help. But Fuentes has incredible charisma, commanding all eyes on him whenever he took the stage. Del Rosario’s impassioned “Evermore” was earnest and powerful, and earned her a huge round of applause from the audience in appreciation. Brillantes’ acting talent was on full display near the end of the show, with an emotional performance that was profoundly moving.

Top: Norm Alconcel, Josh Capulong. Below: Julio Fuentes, Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Dominique Brilliantes, . Set & Props: Joanna Yu, Costumes: Joyce Padua, Lighting: Michelle Ramsay. Photo Dahlia Katz.
Top: Norm Alconcel, Josh Capulong. Below: Julio
Fuentes, Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Dominique Brillantes.
Set & Props: Joanna Yu, Costumes: Joyce Padua,
Lighting: Michelle Ramsay. Photo Dahlia Katz.

At 100 minutes with no intermission, the action is well paced and never feels like it's dragging. The story ends on a high note and the energy at the curtain call is contagious; the audience can't help but exit with a smile on their face. I sincerely hope that Prison Dancer follows in the footsteps of its Citadel predecessors because this is a show that, with a bit of refinement, I could see being extremely well received either on- or off-Broadway.

Take my advice and have “no regerts” - don’t miss your chance to see Prison Dancer the Musical while it’s in Ottawa. This show has a real possibility to be one you’ll look back on and say, “I saw it when…”. Prison Dancer is in performances at the Babs Asper Theatre at the NAC through December 2nd and tickets are available at the NAC’s box office or by clicking this link: here.




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