By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
A human sparkler stands before us, a queen with gorgeous chiffon wings, in prison orange. That’s prisoner Ruperto Poblador, aka Lola (played by the charismatic Julio Fuentes), onstage to reveal how she became an internet influencer in the pre-TikTok pre-Snapchat olden days.
Prison Dancer, a new Canadian pop musical premiering at the Citadel before a fall run at the National Arts Centre, has a knock-out premise. It’s inspired by an amazingly weird 2007 YouTube sensation, a video of 1,500 inmates in a maximum security Filipino prison in Cebu dancing to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Created by the team of Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus (it’s already been a film and a web series), the musical proposes a back story of sorts to this strange dance concoction, with its highly theatrical visuals and Vincent Price-ian voice-overs.
The production itself has a back story, one that introduces Canadian theatre to an impressive (and hitherto largely untapped) talent pool. From the creative and production teams to director Nina Lee Aquino and her 12-member cast, it’s all-Filipino. And on opening night, a packed crowd with a heartwarming representation from the younger Filipino-Canadian community, cheered every song, every move, every big-M emotional moment. And that sense of community and connection feeds the story, too.
“If you have imagination you can turn this hell into heaven,” says the sinuous Lola, who doesn’t walk when she can do dance moves, in high heels. She rules the roost on the inside, under the mantra “celebrate whenever we can wherever we can.” And her fellow inmates, locked up for drug offences and running drugs from inside, indulge her, some less genially than others. They do, however, take the time to beat up newcomer Christian (Daren Dyhengco), who’s trying to get clean.
The arrival of a new Warden (Jovanni Si), a pompous disciplinarian who believes in “cracking down,” “atonement,” and “rehabilitation” through punitive physical exercise, threatens to turn this summer camp for the vaguely artistic into military-style boot camp. Needless to say he’s really not a fan of drag.
Lola turns this group exercise regimen into dance. And the hard-ass Warden suddenly, whizz-bang without warning, turns into an enabler — a comic internet slut, with an insatiable appetite for “views” and an eye on his “legacy” as a rehabilitation expert. The Prison Dancer story is constructed at that intersection of those two developments. “Look alive, the world is watching,” as one of the musical’s livelier songs has it. And both the Warden and gradually the inmates take note.
The world of the show is Joanna Yu’s prison set, a moveable trio of revolving multi-level gridwork towers of bars, overhung with shorts and T-shirts, with dramatic lighting by Michelle Ramsay. In Prison Dancer authority, i.e. the Warden in his enforcer sunglasses, naturally gets the highest perch.
If art has a built-in tension in Prison Dancer — dance that is coerced from a captive audience can become joyful and redemptive — so has love. Two relationships, thwarted by circumstance, get scenes and big matching ballads of lamentation. One is Lola’s relationship with Shakespeare (Dominique Brillantes), who has a wife on the outside. The other, sketched rather than fully occupied, belongs to Christian and his wife Cherish (the affecting Diana Del Rosario). She believes in the power of love to wrest happy endings from sad stories; he’s distancing himself, for her sake. Evermore is the big emotional pop ballad of the piece, reprised climactically.
The prevailing idea of the musical is the transformative power of dance, tested to the extreme in a maximum security prison. And I’m wondering, on this first viewing, why it doesn’t come more thrillingly alive and present in this premiere production. Although Julio Fuentes’ choreography is witty, and seasoned with MJ and Thriller allusions, the show’s premise promises more dancing than it actually delivers, even when the inmates get down with the new program. So far it’s a bit hard to imagine a Broadway destination for the production without some big, visceral, extended dance numbers.
The storytelling and the dialogue, by Candido and De Jesus, are laced with wit and amusing insights into individual characters like Shakespeare and the Warden. This isn’t the reclamation of hardened criminals; this is all about making life inside for the inmate collective more tenable through dance (being in maximum security need not be a barrier to artistic fulfilment, whew). The cultural references, in the Christmas Morning number for example, or the Filipino snack that Cherish brings to the prison, help give Prison Dancer its unique flavour. Bring them on!
With exceptions Candido’s score, though, has a certain sameness about it; it leans heavily into ballads with similar thoughts about “new beginnings” and “freedom.” The musical arrangements, for an able band of three, don’t do it any favours. And on opening night, the lopsided sound mix favoured the piano over audible lyrics, a correctable problem to be sure.
The idea of Prison Dancer as a speculative back story to a mysterious internet phenomenon is very appealing. It has built-in theatricality, it has a live-wire and specific cultural connection, it has a universal message about feeding the soul. And it’ll l be dancing its way into future incarnations. Further development awaits.
Prison Dancer The Musical
Theatre: Citadel and Prison Dancer Inc.
Created by: Romeo Candido and Carmen De Jesus
Directed by: Nina Lee Aquino
Starring: Julio Fuentes, Norm Aloncel, Pierre Angelo Bayuga, Dominique Brillantes, Josh Capulong, Diana Del Rosario, Renell Doneza, Daren Dyhengco, Chariz Faulmino, Byron Flores, Jovanni Sy, Stephen Thakkar
Running: through May 28
Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com