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How ‘Dani Girl’ works, not a hair out of place

Marty (Luigi Quesada) and Dani (Rebecca Coates) confront Cancer (Reb Atadero) in a sci-fi-infused showdown, a scene from Sandbox  Collective’s Dani Girl directed by Toff De Venecia. Photos by GR RODIS

MANILA, Philippines - Why is cancer? No, neither typo nor accidental lapse in grammar, but rather a philosophical question that brings such a horrific disease down to its rudimentary form. As such, it also serves as the basis for an entire play, which turns the rhetorical on its head by having a nine-year-old leukemia survivor, the titular Dani of Dani Girl, put together an explanation for why her life has turned out the way it has, chemotherapy-induced baldness and all. Yes, it’s every bit as heart-wrenching and weighty as it sounds. Oh, and it’s a musical and it also happens to be outrageously funny.

Written by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, the show was relatively unknown, having only been produced within the past five years or so. Even as a self-anointed Broadway enthusiast, I knew nothing about it beforehand. But director Toff de Venecia has always had an eye for bringing attention to a lot of lesser-known greats. For Ateneo’s organization BlueRep (which I’ve followed for years), his work on Little Shop of Horrors and Bat Boy: The Musical, among others helped cement them on the list of some of my favorite musicals. Now with Sandbox Collective, Toff has found more ways to establish his place in the Philippine theater scene.

Putting on a show like this is no small feat. There is nuance, with equal parts whimsy. Of course, there are tidbits of dark humor, but by no means does the play become oversaturated with gags done purely for shock value. In fact, for such heavy material, you’re made to feel as weightless as Dani herself, especially when her imagination is at play.

The script was written with so much fastidiousness that the characters make sure you are laughing with them — at cancer, and cancer only, which is made the butt of many jokes. In some ways, catharsis is the main point of it all. Every character goes through it, and you’re in their heads the entire time. You laugh when cancer (a literal villain) gets his ass handed to him. You wish, like all the characters that are rightfully antagonistic towards him — that he would just go away and never come back.

These characters are treated delicately, not because of their cancer status but because they’re children. While the songs are catchy enough, and the plot proceeds with accurate volatility as life would, what the title suggests is true: Dani Girl is ultimately a coming-of-age story about a little girl who grows up. Meaning it relies wholly on stellar acting performances, and simply put, the cast absolutely nailed it.

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The mains are youthful Rebecca Coates (as Dani, with Mitzy Lao playing her in some performances) and Luigi Quesada (as Marty). Both do an excellent job in convincing you that they may be savvy with morals and games, but are also very much just naïve children trying to make the best out of a dire situation. Also with them is the crowd favorite, their guardian angel Ralph, played by Reb Atadero (or Lorenz Martinez in some performances). Ralph plays any role given to him by the children, and Atadero does an immense job projecting almost a dozen different personas depending on the situation, switching from one to another in flashes that are downright gut-busting. Shielda Valderrama plays Dani’s mother (Pamela Imperial in some performances), having to master the understated role of reining in the more ludicrous parts, while upping the emotional ante.

“Cancer musicals,” or cancer anything, are not and should never be a thing, though Dani Girl deserves to be that one allowable instance. This was the sentiment agreed on by several audience members after the play, who admitted to having been as intimate with cancer during at least one point in their lives. Because despite the fact that joy and laughter can still recur, there are no single great profound realizations that suddenly make you okay with suffering. The play feels more real in that regard; no wonder there was not a dry eye in the theater by the end. People hurried to scrub at their teary faces the moment the lights came back on for the curtain call.

Sandbox Collective, founded by Toff De Venecia, is the latest performing arts group (“Not a company,” Toff emphasizes) that prioritizes equal distribution of ideas and labor from all of its members. “That way, everyone has a voice,” Toff adds.

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Upcoming projects include Blueprint, (a Sandbox Collective original) and The Imaginarium (a multi-arts festival). Meanwhile, Dani Girl will continue to run on July 24 (Thursday, 3:30 and 8 p.m.), 25 (Friday, 8:30 p.m.), 26 (Saturday, 3:30 and 8 p.m.) and 27 (Sunday, 3:30 and 8 p.m.). For tickets, call Ticket World at 891-9999 or visit www.ticketworld.com.ph/Online/danigirl.

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