A new world-class theater is launched with ‘Chicago’
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - December 13, 2014 - 12:00am

We are taking a backstage tour of Solaire’s brand-new theater with Lunchbox Productions CEO James Cundall, and he pauses at the actors’ dressing room shower, where the showerhead has been installed somewhere around the level of his neck.

“Obviously, these were designed with Manila performers in mind, not West End or Broadway performers,” he says with a laugh. It’s a minor hiccup compared to all the things that Solaire’s new 1,760-seat venue gets right, and it reminds you of the scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray finds it hard to situate himself under a Japanese-height showerhead.

Cundall is justly proud of this new venue, a space that can handle up to 150 performers backstage and is “probably one of the best-equipped theaters in Australasia.”

“This is a brand-new Lyric theater for Manila, and we’ve been involved in helping them design it over three years, so we’re quite proud of it.” By “we” he means Lunchbox Productions, which has been bringing Broadway and West End shows to Manila audiences for a dozen years now, and of course Solaire, which built the venue. Chicago, which is now the longest running musical on Broadway, had its premiere the night of our backstage tour; it’s actually the first Great White Way show to be imported complete with principal actors and dancers — the total Broadway experience, in other words, but in a brand-new Asian theater that surpasses most found in Times Square or the West End. (Catch it before it ends on Dec. 21.)

I ask Cundall what it is that audiences want from a night out these days.

“There’s always a balance between what I want as a producer, which is lots of seats so we can play to a full house — but also intimacy. And there’s not a bad seat in this building.” He casts an arm out, indicating the spanking-new theater seats. “If we went up to the back, even the back row, you’re very close to the stage here. And that’s what I love.”

In general, Cundall says, “Audiences nowadays want good foyers, good bars, good loos. They want to be spoiled. An evening out at the theater should be a spoiling experience. As with shopping, you’re spending your leisure time, pesos or dollars, and you want to feel appreciated.”

And that’s just what goes on front of stage. “Backstage, what we need is a big functional space where we can put our toys — we want the actors and actresses to be comfortable.”

Comfort doesn’t look like a problem — barring a few low showerheads at the moment. “There’s a green room I’ve just discovered, didn’t know was there, they can go and relax by these coffee machines, the principal dressing rooms have all got showers and TV screens. Trust me, this is a really well-equipped baby.” Backstage, there’s an endless spread of rooms designed to house an army of people and props (for those huge Cecil B. DeMille-type productions involving chandeliers and helicopters). We take a peek at the rehearsal space — it’s a vast wooden floor with new piano, bigger than many people’s homes.

“People in this country should be absolutely rapt about this theater,” Cundall enthuses.

Indeed, my wife and I are amazed at the acoustics of The Theatre when we go to see the show. You can hear every instrument — every banjo pluck, every trumpet note — with crystal clarity; every syllable of dialogue is clear without being overly loud. The space surrounding the stage offers that rarest of treats: no echo off the walls, allowing you to immerse yourself in the magic happening onstage.

All this makes Chicago that much more fun to watch. The stage patter is crisp and snappy; the dance moves are tighter than a dancer’s buns; the Filipino orchestra shone — all 11 of them. Leads Terra MacLeod and Bianca Marroquin were even more “on” as Velma and Roxie than the staging we saw in New Orleans. They are all ready for, and enjoying, their Manila moment. (I did notice a few differences: no one smoked cigarettes onstage here, perhaps due to building regulations; and the dancers’ outfits were a bit more chaste than in the US show: black sheer covering up the more, er, protruding bits. But still very, very sexy.)

Fitting that Chicago is the first big production to open in this new theater: it’s relatively easier to stage than, say, Wicked or Phantom with all those props. But it’s still no piece of cake.

“I’ve seen this show 40 or 50 times,” says Cundall, “and I love that it’s incredibly simple yet incredibly complicated — this looks simple, but it’s a bloody nightmare working on this show!”

He’s also proud of the Filipino musicians onstage. “I love that the band is part of the show. I was at band rehearsal yesterday, and the first solo notes on trumpet are played by a local musician. I thought, he didn’t think ever in his life that he’d play the first notes on a Broadway musical, with two Broadway stars flown in from the US.”

After doing much the same in Hong Kong and Singapore, Lunchbox started working with partners in Manila 12 years ago to start bringing Broadway and West End shows here. I ask him if Manila is “ready for its closeup” now, with audiences ready to pay premium prices for world-class productions.

“I think the market here is as good if not better than most places. The other thing that’s happening, this is the strongest growing economy in Asia at the moment, with a GDP of 6.75 percent or something. Manila is booming. What we’ve done is come in at a time when people can afford to buy tickets to a show. Then we’ve given them the great shows to see.”

He praises the sophistication of Manila patrons. “I love the audiences here. They’re actually so appreciative, they get the minutest joke because they’re clever, and they appreciate what’s onstage, and if they don’t like what they’re seeing, they also can tell you, which is wonderful.”

So Lunchbox is raising the bar with this first production at Solaire?

“I want everyone to bring in the best,” says Cundall, “because now, I think the audience will start to be very discerning if they feel it’s not the best. That’s what I love: the baby bird who’s been spoon-fed will start to go, ‘You know what? Not as good a worm as I had before.’ You should get the best of the best.”

And that might mean bringing back things like Cats with proven past success. “You know, we’re environmentalists: you can bring back great shows like Cats because there’s a new audience or a new generation that wants to see it.”

Oh, yes: Broadway does believe in recycling.

“Yeah. I think the old adage was you had to come out humming the tunes; I think the new adage is you have to go in humming the tunes. I think you have to know what you’re going to see.”

Next on the docket, for July 2015, is the new revival of Singin’ in the Rain. “It’s a mother of a production, direct from the West End, a wonderful five-star production, some of the best reviews I’ve seen for a show, and 12,000 liters of water a night, and the wonderful choreography Gene Kelly did, the music we all know. We’re going to have such fun with that here,” says Cundall.

And that will be staged, of course, during rainy season?

“Yes, just the start of rainy season. If you’re in the first few front rows you’ll get wet as well,” he says with a smile.

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