REVIEW: Tanghalang Pilipino presents a heavy, uneven 'Mulan'

Heavy, uneven 'Mulan' 
By Walter Ang
October 15, 2007
Philippine Daily Inquirer

A stark white stage with three scarlet arches greets audiences in Tanghalang Pilipino's production of Mulan, a new Tagalog musical version of the story popularized by the Disney animated movie a few years back.

The simplicity of the acting space provides the perfect canvass for the rainbow colors that soon fills it via sets and costume designer Gino Gonzales' highly textured outfits. The exaggerated shapes and cushioned fabrics filled the costumes with a life of their own. Anime-inspired hairpieces in wild, crazy shapes as well as wiggling ornaments and ribbons made to look as if they were permanently flapping in the wind are also fun touches.

The actors all have make-up designed by Dennis Tan evoking Chinese opera masks while the deities Jade Emeperor and Empress Wang Mu are provided larger-than-life masks that tower over the actors's head. With enlarged hand extensions and their faces showing through the costumes' "chest," this is a great design that recalls our very own higantes of Angono and reminiscent of the costumes used by Lion King director Julie Taymor in her production of the opera Oedipus in Japan.

The solidly red set pieces are life-size Chinese paper cuttings with the shapes and outlines of household furniture and landscapes intricately cut-out from delicate sheets of paper (although plywood is probably the material used).

Director Dennis Marasigan counters these massive motifs by having the cast perform in stylized movement (also inspired by Chinese opera) while choreographer Denisa Reyes provides graceful yet powerful action sequences that incorporate wu-shu martial arts. Bong Cabrera as a ballerina soldier is particularly hilarious. Marasigan also provides moments of tension and excitement for the audience by having enemy soldiers attack Mulan's camp from the back of the theater.

These extreme and zany elements are everything you would expect a children's musical to have. It is a wonder then, why the themes explored by librettist Rody Vera and composer Jed Balsamo were executed in such a heavy and uneven tone.

The poem on which different versions of Mulan's story have been inspired is a rich source of virtues for story-telling: filial piety, social obligations, patriotism, sacrifice, personal freewill, team effort, gender roles, etc. For this ninety minute children's musical, it could have proved too rich.

With what seemed an appropriate theme for children to learn from, Vera starts off with the classic case of boys versus girls where his two deities fight over why men like waging war so much.

He supports this by having Mulan's parents wish for a boy (they get Mulan instead with some divine intervention from the Empress Wang Mu), scenes of Mulan being taught to use a sword by her father and a matchmaking segment with the last available bachelor who Mulan promptly pummels.

However, his narrative soon does flying kicks and tangents into the weariness and loneliness that sets in during war mongering, though beautifully illuminated by lighting designer Jonjon Villareal who showcases the passage of time and distance with effective transitions from sharp yellow desert to cold dreary blue mountain terrain. Plot points introduced in the beginning lost their follow through and those revealed in the second half were denied the luxury of a proper build-up.

Balsamo's music, while imaginatively using instruments gleaned from Chinese opera, threads a loneliness throughout the production. He gives Mulan an elegy when she has to leave her family, which Mayen EstraƱero sings with much bristle and brio, and follows with a hauntingly beautiful threnody "Gusto ko ng umuwi" for her camp when they hit the ten year mark of fighting the enemy.

These songs that pine and mourn are in aligned note for note with Vera's desire to explore vulnerability and realism. But wouldn't a marching ditty or jolly fraternal jingle or even a bouncy ballad about secret crushes been a little more ? fun?

The yin of this musical's exposition doesn't quite match the yang of its denoument. Like the dual concepts of yin and yang, the production feels like watching two different shows at the same time: one for children and one for adults. The production design and make up are perfect for young audiences.

The stylized movement and choreography can go either way. It would be interesting actually (because the themes and music do have potential), if Vera and Balsamo could consider further developing their current material and angst into a dark adult romance musical.

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