BWW Review: DANI GIRL's Best Feature Lies In Its Childlike Heart
Manila, Philippines--"She's perfect!" That was our immediate reaction after seeing The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical's restaging of "Dani Girl" at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza in Makati. We are, of course, alluding to Felicity Kyle Napuli, who is gifted with such a pristine singing voice and, at such a young age, exhibits incredible acting maturity. With this remarkable performance (she was last seen as Young Nala in the first international tour of Disney's "The Lion King" and as one of the lead actors in "Matilda The Musical"), Napuli is undoubtedly the child actor to watch for in the Manila theater scene.
Kudos to director Toff de Venecia and his casting team because it appears that the role of Dani Lyons is a springboard for a theater-star-in-the-making. Look at what it did to Rebecca Coates, who originated the role in 2014 (by the way, for this restaging, she reprises her role and alternates with Napuli). To take on this role requires a lot of skill (and, maybe, even inborn talent). First, she has to have some level of maturity that is beyond her age (Dani is "not quite 10") yet still embodies a sense of wonder, innocence, curiosity, and other child-like sensibilities. Second, she has to have the stamina (she barely has time to rest her instrument) and ample supply of charm to carry this show from start to finish. But having done "Matilda" and "The Lion King" a few years prior, Napuli proves to be more than ready to take on this challenging role. Napuli not only impressed us with her singing and comedic timing, we are also in awe of her ability to seamlessly 'transition" between her character's two "realities," so to speak: first, her life as a cancer patient going through painful medical procedures and, second, her time spent imagining and playing games with her guardian angel.
Although this musical is a tearjerker, what with the heavy subject matter, "Dani Girl" is also, in many ways, a heartwarming story of hope. The plot centers on this young girl's quest to get her hair back (after undergoing chemotherapy). To her understanding, the only way to achieve this is if she finds the answer to the question: "Why is cancer?" Without hesitation, she comes up with different ideas and solutions to get to the bottom of this utterly difficult question. One of her many ideas has something to do with sacrificing her beloved teddy bear (one of the most emotional moments in the show is when Napuli sings "Requiem for a Bear") and blasting off to space to fight "Mr. Cancer" face-to-face with a lightsaber.
Side by side with Dani in this out-of-this-world adventure is Marty, Dani's roommate in the hospital who is, according to her, diagnosed with a "sissy type of cancer." Showing signs of puberty as evidenced by his voice, Daniel Drilon, who plays the role of Marty, (Luigi Quesada is his alternate) admitted in an interview that the score (music by Michael Kooman) of this show sits a little outside his comfort zone. However, we still find Drilon's casting as appropriate since Marty is characterized as a less sociable and geeky (he is a shameless fan of many action heroes in movies) young boy, probably a few years older than Dani. Drilon's limitations (natural for boys going through puberty) help him get into this character with very little effort and pretense.
Two adult actors complete this cast: Pam Imperial (playing the role of Dani's mother, Katharine) and Juliene Mendoza (Dani's guardian angel, Raph). It is not surprising that the performances of the child actors are far more memorable than those of the two adult actors. Still, Imperial's portrayal of Katharine deserves mention (she played the same role in the 2014 staging, alternating with Shiela Valderrama-Martinez) if only for her emotionally-restrained solo number "The Sun Still Rose," which elaborates Katharine's inner struggles as a single mother trying to keep it together in spite of her situation. Mendoza (alternating with Lorenz Martinez), on the other hand, has the almost-impossible task of playing a multitude of roles. Mendoza is hilarious when he plays a role with an accent (our favorite is his take on a Mexican drug dealer) but we feel that his most affecting portrayal is the least theatrical among them - the role of God at the end of the second act.
Unlike its 2014 run, the current staging exerted too much effort in improving the aesthetics of the show (set by Sinag Arts, scenic design by Faust Peneyra, lighting design by Miggy Panganiban, and projections by Joee Mejias). To begin with, this production features a stage that is slightly truncated on both sides, plus a whimsical and eye-catching centerpiece. The effect, therefore, is a less believable setup, supposedly of an actual room at a hospital with two cancer patients sharing such a cramped space. Another experiment that proves to be more distracting than entertaining is during Dani and Raph's game of "Trivial Pursuit." The staging attempts to recreate an actual reality TV show with Raph as game show host and Dani as the contestant. However, this part of the show comes off as overly executed and too superficial. The show, thankfully, recovers immediately after those mishaps and, with Napuli's truthful and polished performance, finds its way back to the play's (book by Christopher Dimond) best feature: its heart.
DANI GIRL runs now until September 1, 2019.
Get tickets (P900-P2,000) via TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Oliver Oliveros