NY Review: 'Prison Dancer'

at the Theatre at St. Clement's as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

July 24, 2012


Photo by Juan Camilo Palacio
You don't need to know anything about prison or even what "going viral" means to thoroughly enjoy "Prison Dancer." This buoyant evening—based on an actual story about a rehabilitation program in Cebu, a maximum security prison in the Philippines that produced a video that went viral on YouTube — avoids mushy sentimentality and liberal guilt in dealing with a bunch of hardened criminals who learn about love and community through dance.

Six convicts—three straight, two gay, one transgender—are soon joined by Christian, who has been jailed, as he sees it, for protecting his girlfriend from an overzealous police officer. The dynamics are volatile: The convicts are not a friendly bunch, and one inmate faces imminent execution. (Why he's housed with the others doesn't make sense, but so be it.)

When a hardened, no-nonsense new warden appears, he lays down his terms. Determined to reform a chaotic scene, he proposes something he labels REDO: rehabilitation, education, discipline, order. He puts the transgender Lola in charge, someone who immediately sees the possibilities of turning exercise from pushups to choreography. "The dancing was more than exercise," says Lola at the outset. "It was rehabilitation and really set us free." When word gets out, these men in orange jumpsuits "put the fun in fundamentals" and attract millions of worldwide fans. No more "ashraid" (ashamed of being afraid), they find courage and purpose. The more they dance, the less they fight.

This is nothing as icky as "Up With People." The convicts may have found camaraderie, but they're no less tough and unyielding. True, they become more religious, even reconstructing a disused prison chapel. True, too, they have to fight stereotypes ("No one expects kindness from criminals"), but it's their transformation from being isolated individuals with personal gripes into a group that finds strength in unity that matters. It may sound too idealistic, even romanticized, yet the problem of reconciling the individual with society is essential to forming a more perfect union. When these guys dance—and, oh, how well they dance—their humanity shines.

Romeo Candido's disco-inspired score is beautifully wed to his lyrics and to his and Carmen De Jesus' book. Under the vibrant work of director-choreographer Jenn Rapp, everyone is a distinct character. Heading the accomplished 10-person cast as Lola is the ingratiating Jeigh Madjus, who expertly walks the line between sincerity and caricature. Christian's journey from introvert to extrovert not only mirrors the show itself but clarifies its themes of redemption, and Jose Llana makes Christian's embrace of freedom, when he submits to his loyal girlfriend (an excellent Catherine Ricafort), intoxicating. Also notable are Albert Guerzon, as the tough-but-yielding Tondo, and Moses Villarama, as the delusional Shakespeare (so nicknamed because of his penchant for writing).

Despite the characters' sordid backgrounds, we end up caring what happens to them. Yes, they're criminals, but they're also human and as such not beyond saving.

Presented by Prison Dancer Live as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St., NYC, July 22–28. Remaining performances: Fri., July 27, 5 p.m.; Sat., July 28, 5 and 9 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811.4111, or www.nymf.org Casting by Michael Cassara.
 

 
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