Alice awake: Repertory Philippines’ ‘Alice in Wonderland’

Rome Jorge
This staging hinges in large part on the audience participation of Filipino children

COME INTO HER DREAMS. Alice and her crew are back in Repertory Philippines' 'Alice in Wonderland.' All images from the Repertory Philippines Facebook page

MANILA, Philippines – Children, with their short attention spans and cruel candor, can be the most unforgiving of critics and audiences.

They will say what they think, plain and simple. They say even more when they don’t talk at all, look away and do something else.

Raised on fast-paced video games and manic cartoons, theater is often experienced by children nowadays as a school requirement. It is often associated with academic obligations rather than being seen as an entertaining treat.

Repertory Philippines chooses to run the gauntlet of these tiny hands by staging Jim Eiler and Jeanne Bargy’s musical, “Alice in Wonderland.” To make things even more challenging, this staging hinges in large part on the audience participation of Filipino children who are raised by parents who equate demureness and silence with goodness and obedience.

ENCOURAGING KIDS TO PARTICIPATE. Members of the company on stage at the press preview last August 17

Alice in Wonderland: Into the rabbit hole

They implore their little audiences to sing along — “I’m mad, you’re mad, we’re all mad here.” Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.

“Alice in Wonderland” is set run until December 15 at Onstage, Greenbelt 1, Makati City. By allotting such a relatively long theater run for “Alice,” Repertory Philippines clearly hopes to make this a holiday treat for the entire family.

Adding to its appeal is its educational value. Schools hoping children gain a deeper appreciation for Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll’s classic for children literature will be wise to make this a part of their curriculum. 

CAST OF COLORFUL CHARACTERS. The Tea Party scene comes to life

Starring onstage are young actors Dani Gana and Chaye Mogg as Alice. Repertory Philippines has wisely supported them with a stellar ensemble of acclaimed veteran thespians such as:

  • Bituin Escalante and Natalie Everett as the Queen of Hearts
  • Liesl Batucan as the Duchess
  • Nacho Tambunting, Jim Ferrer and Reb Atadero as the Rabbit
  • Oliver Usison and Kendrick Ibasco as the Walrus and King of Hearts
  • Nic Campos and Joel Trinidad as the French Mouse, the Carpenter and the Mad Hatter
  • Onyl Torres and James Stacey as the Caterpillar and the March Hare. 

Behind the curtain are Joy Virata, director; Baby Barredo, musical director; Jamie Wilson, technical director; Gino Gonzales, set designer; Raven Ong, costume designer; John Batalla, lights designer; Lisa, Tintin and Cecille Martinez, choreographers; Onyl Torres, vocal coach; and Jay Pangilinan, musical arranger. Batucan, also onstage, serves as assistant director.

When I watched the premiere of “Alice in Wonderland” last August 17, I was heartened to see that the theater was packed to the rafters. Even the step on the aisles had children and their guardians squeezing in to find a place for themselves. 

HOLDING HER OWN. Dani Gana's Alice faces off with Bituin Escalante's Red Queen

Escalante and Batucan shone the brightest, effortlessly mesmerizing audiences with their powerful vocals. Their talents helped support Gana who held her own with Philippine theater’s best. The refreshing origami-inspired stage design and costumes by Ong and Gonzales, respectively, were put in the best light flawlessly by Batalla.

The greatest creative risk taken was that of integrating audience participation into the theater performance. Attempting to goad often shy Asian children to participate in a decidedly English story was met with mixed results, with children responding more emphatically to answering questions than to singing along. [Perhaps because the sing-alongs came first, it was only when the questions came along later that they had properly warmed up.]

A DIFFERENT APPROACH. Characters interact with the children in the audience

Besides hinging the success of the performance on its young audiences, the use of audience participation broke the spell of suspended disbelief by shattering the “4th wall” and interrupted the flow of the story. Nonetheless, it still worked, albeit with mixed results.

I noticed that it were the more westernized children who were the most vocal. Perhaps by first gauging its audience for the night and learning from previous performances, this production can fine-tune how and when to elicit audience participation for even better results. 

BETTER EFFECTS, PLEASE. The scene where Alice wakes from her dream can still be improved

Another room for improvement, however tiny, is the moment when Alice wakes from her dream. As effective as it already was, I feel it could be made even more climactic by signifying it with more dramatic changes in lighting, music, body movement and delivery.

“Alice in Wonderland” is set to enjoy a long run and already it is off to a darn good start. There’s plenty of time for this well-honed to production to get even better. –

For more information, visit the Repertory Philippines Facebook page.

Rome Jorge is the editor-in-chief of Asian Traveler magazine.

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