MANILA, Philippines – Immortal — that’s what Catalina “Katy” de la Cruz was.
Born in 1907, she was dubbed “Queen of Philippine vaudeville and jazz” when vaudeville was still primetime entertainment and jazz was still danceable riotous fun. When Katy came of age, she infused the tepid stage fare of the time with her gutsy and soulful belting, crooning and scatting.
At 18 years old, Katy was the highest paid entertainer in the country. She survived the Japanese occupation of the Second World War, a philandering husband who nursed both a sick liver and a family out of wedlock, and the advent of movies and television.
She even gained renown as a performer in San Francisco, USA.
Katy had a knack of bringing together the most talented people. As a child, she worked with Atang de la Rama. Her contemporaries included dear friends Mary Walter, Chichay, Etang Discher and Patsy. She even worked with a young up-and-coming dancer and comedian named Dolphy Quizon.
Before her death in 2004, Katy received a trophy from the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences (FAMAS) for Best Supporting Actress in 1953, and saw her life immortalized on stage by Mitch Valdez and Celeste Legaspi with a musical by Nestor Torre and Ryan Cayabyab in 1989.
Even after her passing, the staging of Torre’s “Katy!” last January at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) brought together famous stars such as Isay Alvarez, Dulce, Tirso Cruz III, Lou Veloso, Epy Quizon and Gian Magdangal.
Today, in a re-staging set to run at the Meralco Theater until August 4, Katy’s life story sees the addition of 5 more dancer-actors and 4 more singers. The cast now includes Aicelle Santos, Tricia Jimenez, Sheng Belmonte, CJ Mangahis, Celine Beatrice Fabie, Heidi Arima, Sheenly Gener, Neomi Gonzales and Bong Cabrera, to name a few. Costumes are designed by Fanny Serrano.
“Katy! The Musical” evokes her era not only through costumes, music and narrative, but also in its highly mannered delivery. Its aesthetic sensibilities — be they humor, song, dialogue or moral perspective — reflect the play’s bygone era.
That is why when a touch of the contemporary spices up the play — a rare expletive peppering an otherwise wholesome dialogue or characters rolling along on shoes with hidden wheels at the heel — the surprise is all the more jolting yet pleasant.
Shining brightest are the actresses who play Katy: Isay Alvarez, Aicelle Santos and Leana Tabunar.
Tabunar, who plays Katy as a child, sets the bar sky high at the start of the play with her awe-inspiring vocal performances. It is quite startling to witness so young a child belt her lungs out with so much bravado.
Santos and Alvarez build strength upon strength, maturing not only her character, but also her virtuosity and pathos.
It is an almost flawless play. However, the set design is uninspired, non-interactive, sparse and rickety. Also, a supposedly comic scene about bananas uses an awful racial stereotype with an actor in kinky hair and loincloth acting almost like a primate.
Such misogyny may have tickled the bigoted audiences during the character’s milieu when Caucasian comedians still portrayed Africans and African Americans with blackface; but it was wrong even then, it was wrong in 1989 when the play first premiered, and it is wrong today.
Nonetheless, the musical leaves a sweet taste in the mouth and a tear hanging on one’s eye.
Among the most indelible scenes are when Katy and company stage a play that praises the Japanese occupiers while a Japanese commander keeps an eye on them. They lambast their oppressor on stage while he has his back turned.
Another is when Katy — after being introduced to American audiences as “Katy Lee,” a “singer from China” (a stage name and identity her American promoter invented for her) — stops the performance to tell the audience her real name and her real nationality.
That’s the Katy worth immortalizing in song and dance.
Watch Katy de la Cruz perform ‘A Tear Fell’ in this video posted on YouTube by talent manager Girlie Rodis:
Rome Jorge is the editor in chief of Asian Traveler magazine.