Wednesday, October 07, 2015

The ‘Choo Choo’ Train Offers Fun Ride of Pop Songs and Gay Camp

The cast of Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale with composer Vehnee Saturno and director George de Jesus
Productions involving popular and well-loved songs by one composer or performer gathered and strung together to make a stage musical have proven to be enjoyable and well-liked. Of course, the songs in question should have been a monumental part of popular culture. The songs of Swedish pop group Abba, made into the musical Mamma Mia! in 1999, was then turned into a movie in 2008 and has been staged in the Philippines recently. 
In the Philippines, the most famous jukebox musical of late is the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s Rak of Aegis, using the songs of pop-rock band Aegis. The musical has been so successful it has had several runs already.
Sensing the likability of such genre, Stages Production Specialist Inc. came up with Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale, featuring the popular songs of Vehnee Saturno, one of the most popular and recognizable pop composers today with a long string of hits for some of the country’s biggest singers.
The multi-awarded composer is known for songs such as “Be My Lady” (originally performed by Martin Nievera), “Sana Kahit Minsan” and “Simple Lang” (Ariel Rivera), “Isang Lahi” (Regine Velasquez), “Mr. Kupido” (Rachel Alejandro), “Bakit Pa?” (Jessa Zaragoza), “Wala na Bang Pag-ibig?” and “Dahil Tanging Ikaw” (Jaya) and “Forever’s Not Enough” (Sarah Geronimo).
The first four shows of Chuva Choo Choo were staged on Sept. 25, 26 and 27, inaugurating the new Power Mac Center Spotlight at the still-in-construction, 22-hectare property Circuit Makati in Carmona, Makati City.
The musical coincides with the 35th year anniversary of Saturno in the industry. The composer said that it has been a dream of his to have a stage musical. In the past years, he had been in talks with several producers, but nothing came into fruition. Two years ago, theater actor and singer Audie Gemora came up with idea of staging a production inspired by the film Connie and Carla. At the same time, they were looking through the songs of Saturno. Two project ideas fused into one.
Palanca award-winning playwright and actor George de Jesus III wrought a musical out of Saturno songs heavily inspired by Nia Vardalos and Michael Lemberck’s 2004 movie. In Chuva Choo Choo, the two main characters become sisters Dina and Darla (played by Joanna Ampil and Morisette Amon, respectively) in a small town in Pangasinan. They are joined by their gay friend Nenita (Ross Pesigan), who acts as their fan, choreographer and sidekick, in the two’s forays in amateur singing contests. In one contest where they lose, they overhear one of the judges, Mayor T (Juliene Mendoza) in an altercation with the contest organizer. The three hear a gunshot and quickly conclude that a murder had been committed. They flee, fearing for their life, with Tonton (Jojo Riguerra), the mayor’s bodyguard and Dina’s ex-boyfriend, in pursuit.
They go to Manila and stay with Nenita’s relatives. Tonton catches up with them and they flee again. Nenita eventually meets Zsazsa (Mendoza), an entertainment manager at Mr. Kupido Bar. This leads to Dina and Darla disguising and performing as gay impersonators at the bar under the names Jessa and Jaya. Impressed with their voices, Zsazsa, together with Lani (Ron Alfonso), a former entertainer in Japan and an impersonator at the bar, and Regine (Jay Marquez), who is always in love with a macho dancer, hope they will bring in customers to their failing bar.
In one of their performances, Anne (Via Antonio), a host and talent scout, invites Jessa and Jaya to audition for the newest TV talent reality show Pinoy Got Boses (PGB). Eventually, Jessa and Jaya become a hit and make it to the grand finals.
Jessa/Darla falls for handsome and hunky Zandro (Edward Benosa), Zsazsa’s straight younger brother. Zandro, however, dismisses Darla, thinking she’s gay. Jessa yearns to reveal her true identity. On the other hand, Tonton drops by one night at the bar and is smitten by Jaya mainly because of her resemblance to Dina. Dina tries to ward off Tonton’s advances. Nenita is in battle with Lani and Regine for creative control of Dina and Darla’s production numbers, creating tension in the group. The play culminates in the grand finals of PGB, where their identities are revealed. 
Because of its adaptation of Connie and Carla, Chuva Choo Choo is afflicted with same flaws of the movie, including predictability and trite premises. Aside from situating the movie in the Philippines, Chuva Choo Choo does not give a fresh twist to the Connie and Carla story. Crafty, though, is how the songs of Saturno are incorporated into the play, woven almost seamlessly into the story. As the songs are mostly about love and relationships, these parts of the play are the ones pregnant with music and singing. Fortunately, the story involves stage performances, the characters being performers, and Chuva Choo Choo has enjoyable musical showcases.
Aside from the music, what makes Chuva Choo Choo a fun watch is its comedy, crisp and relatable. It may start a bit slow, but it becomes uproarious upon the entrance of Zsazsa and company. Its comedy heavily draws from pop culture, especially from amateur singing contest conventions, and Filipino gay camp and culture. Adding to its comedic techniques is its being self-aware. Every now and then, the play points to its being a play, an artifice. Set changes can be witnessed and sometimes called to the audience’s attention. Stage hands sometimes become part of the scene.
The effectiveness of Chuva Choo Choo’s comedy is due to its very able actors, who seem to make the scenes effortless and deliver their lines well-timed. Antonio is applauded for her multiple roles, from Nenita’s aunt to a contest host.
Despite dressed heavily in gay camp, the story is basically about romantic love and about straight people. In one of the final scenes, Darla is revealed to be biologically a girl, and Zandro, who constantly has warded off Darla’s affections, suddenly professes love. In one short swoop, this encapsulates how many regard the LGBT. But it must be noted also that Tonton is smitten with Dina despite being perceived as gay.  
Still, Chuva Choo Choo is thoroughly a fun watch, and can be likened to the pop songs it is riddled with—enjoyable and familiar without being provocative.
The first four stagings of the musical were a way to test its viability. Producer Alvin Trono said they are trying out a new business model for theater productions in which they mount a limited run first before the regular run to gauge audience reception.
Chuva Choo Choo: The Mr. Kupido Musicale’s regular run is set for January 2016, still at the new Power Mac Center Spotlight, a 300-seater black box theater. The multi-purpose venue with flexible seating set-up and lights and sound system is patterned to compliment interactive performances.
Chuva Choo Choo is a comedy musical that is relatable to audiences of all ages through Vehnee’s songs. And we thought that the Power Mac Center Spotlight, being the newest theater venue in the metro, would be the perfect venue to bring the show closer to more people,” shared Trono.        

For ticket inquiries, call Cheng Pimentel of Stages Production Specialist Inc. at mobile phone number 0917-8596544.

Hunky Edward Benosa
Nenita (Pesigan) shows his choreography and concept for Dina and Darla’s grand final performance 

Dina (Ampil) and Darla (Amon) sing with Zsazsa (Mendoza), Lani (Alfonso) and Regine (Marquez)
Tonton meets Jaya
A fantasy number of Jessa/Darla

Tonton (Riguerra) is immediately smitten by Dina and doesn’t know the impersonator is really his former girlfriend

The Chuva Choo Choo cast having a selfie with special guest Rachel Alejandro

Roel Hoang Manipon with Saturno

Photos by Roel Hoang Manipon

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