Under pressure

Today, I am beginning a two-part series of reviews of student productions in Ateneo, and I will begin with a review of a musical based on the work of a certain rock band. Rock and academics go well together. In fact, a noted guitarist from Britain, Brian May, is one of the few rock stars I know with a Ph.D., obtained only after some thirty or so years. It was interrupted due to his work with some rock band.

Your correspondent decided to watch this musical on a whim, after seeing the promo posters on Thursday afternoon. In so doing, he was curious to find out the answer to this question: can Missy Maramara direct musicals? More specifically, can she pull off a jukebox musical, the most notable example of which is Mamma Mia? All I can say now is that she has done her best with the resources she had. More on that later.

Rock and Rule is this year’s traditional newbie showcase play for Blue Repertory. (It is technically a “workshop play” in all but name, as I will explain later.) I understand that this somewhat longish libretto work, filled up with some of the more obscure songs from the Queen catalog alongside their 80s anthem favorites, was a technical and artistic challenge to pull off. It hit all the right notes at the end, literally, and the way the story/narrative and songs were integrated was not really as consistent as I expected. However, I was reminded that as a jukebox musical, the key was the use of the music, not necessarily the plot. (Case in point: Mamma Mia, especially the movie.)

I found Act I pretty slow going, as there was a scene or two where I felt less carried off than I expected. The scenes in question did involve some musical performances, and I felt they went on for a bit longer than needed. There were some very good set piece dance numbers where the campy villains stole the show. I found “Under Pressure” one of the best performances of the musical—notwithstanding my unhappiness with the way it was too hastily introduced. I wish the bass line came in a line or two earlier… probably as incidental music.

Act II, however, was less problematic; it was shorter, and had more of the stuff people really recognize. Of course, it did not help that “Who Wants To Live Forever” was used as a love theme; I only thought of those immortal (pun intended) words, “There can only be one.” Singing-wise, this was one of the sourest notes, because the female lead had to sing the first stanza in a lower key and the effect was not good at all. Sadly, one of my favorites was not in the musical, “Love of My Life,” but the orchestration was not available. (It demands a harp, a piano, and a string section.) Here was what convinced me that the two heroes were really the best performers in the play, acting-wise. In the first act, they were introduced as ciphers, but their dynamic as a couple really shone in this act, with swings in mood that helped keep me entertained.

From a technical standpoint, I think Blue Rep did not do well in the sound department. It was a problem I have seen before.  Microphones were off, or sound was not mixed properly at crucial moments in song and dialogue, thus rendering things inaudible or making them sound off. This was a problem in Bat Boy, the last production I watched, where sometimes the chorus overwhelmed the leads. Otherwise, lighting and set design was not a problem, as it did not distract me.

To answer the question I asked at the beginning, it may help to say that the director decided to bring up the political point of the play, one which is familiar to readers of Hardt and Negri and their grave concerns about the global capitalist system. Anyone aware of Missy Maramara’s past directorial work would recognize that she does not shy away from bringing up the politics of the thing, whether explicitly or implicitly. That, I think, is her biggest achievement.

Moreover, she has the benefit of a very good team working with her. For example, her AD, Sab Jose, was one of the leads in Bat Boy, and past readers will know what I had to say about it. I believe this was of benefit in working out the performance dynamics of musical theater, which is very different from, say, Comfort Woman. I think the decision to credit the entire senior creative team in the promo posters was wise, because it helped to highlight the collegial nature of the entire project.

Finally, given that this is a “workshop” play in all but name, it proved to be a learning experience for everyone. The newbies got their chance at working with one of the best theater performers of my generation, and the director got her first shot at working on the unfamiliar genre of the musical. I believe the actors know that it is difficult to both sing and dance at once properly, and they will get some practice as time moves on. I think Missy now realizes that the trick to handling a musical lies in pacing, in making sure that the build-up does not screech to a halt even if it requires trimming some parts at the slight cost of fidelity. In a musical whose emotional climax lies in the songs I (and other brave souls) would love to belt out, the wait should not be too long. The joy of belting out “We Will Rock You” is worth it.

Hence, my answer to the question is: Missy, you almost got away with it this time. Now let’s see you try another one. Meanwhile, I will be listening to “Under Pressure” on my MP3 player.

“Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night

and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves….”

– David Bowie and Queen, “Under Pressure”

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2 thoughts on “Under pressure

  1. Hello! When did you watch the two plays you reviewed? I haven’t watched Rock and Rule, but people have been saying it’s pretty good, for a newbie play.

  2. I saw Rock and Rule on Thursday last week, and Metamorphoses on the day after.

    Well, my other sources are telling me that it’s a little on the mixed end, but I think Blue Rep should be doing very well at this point as the run winds up. Further to my review, I must point out that I couldn’t fault the enthusiasm of the players… and if it were really bad, I would say so. I enjoyed it, notwithstanding anything negative I may have said about it… because some of the “source material” is familiar to me.

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