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Bacolod City, Philippines Saturday, November 16, 2019
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with Matè Espina

All about Cats

Rock & Refuge

My early adulthood was spent mostly on theater having worked for both the Philippine Bayanihan Dance Company and Tanghalang Pilipino, both resident companies of the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

People are always surprised (sometimes even scandalized!) when they learn that I was with the Bayanihan then, and so through the years, in response to raised eyebrows I always say, “Yes, that was some 100 pounds ago.”

When I shifted to musical theater to be with my sisters, Mary Anne and Nenen, we became known as the “Espina sisters” as there were hardly any other siblings who performed and went on tour together during our time.

We had such great memories that up to now, the theater bug has not left me. Thanks to my other sisters who remained active both on and off-stage, I get to enjoy the perks of getting discounted tickets and even watch gala performances for free.

At one time, we even got to hobnob with Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber that one time when Miss Saigon opened its doors in Manila a few years back and we were invited back for the cast party. (Sorry, but I love to brag about that moment!)

Mary Anne played the piano for that musical and several others for over a decade now and just actually flew back from Dubai where she performed with the touring group of the Phantom of the Opera.

And so with six sisters in town – Inday, Malou, Anne, Nenen, May and me – we decided to forego with dinner bonding and watch Cats instead at Solaire after we were offered very nice-priced orchestra tickets last Thursday.

I’ve never seen Cats on stage but can memorize almost every song in that musical. My other sisters who’ve watched the musical elsewhere said the Manila staging was quite different and more personal because the “cats” were actually performing not just on stage but in the audience area.

The costumes and the make-up were just amazing and the dances were just a delight to watch. Of course, Cats does not have the storyline flow of other musicals and it can actually look like any variety show as each major song is an introduction of a particular cat. But though there were some lull moments in the first act, the entire production was just wonderful that merits standing ovation at the end.

My favourite parts were the Jellicle Cats opening production number, the very sexy and funny Rum Tum Tugger and the jazzy Macavity number.

Before the first act ended, that famous Cat song, “Memory” was sung in Tagalog and during the first lines of the song, we looked at each other and wondered what the cat was singing about until we listened to the words and realized it was in Tagalog – and that brought the house down.

The Memory song is sang by Grizabella, once known as the “glamour cat” until she left for the outside world and returned as a defeated soul with her once-shining coat in tatters. The character was played by Filipina, Joanna Ampil who was also part of the original Broadway cast of Miss Saigon and has played various roles in Broadway.

Unfortunately, or perhaps because of high expectations for a seasoned theater performer, I was personally disappointed by Ampil’s performance even though she redeemed herself in the final stanza of the song. Nevertheless, she got the most applause, probably because she is a Filipino and she sang the most popular song in that musical.

Just a few seats ahead of us were Doctors Hector and Jocelyn Gayares and it was sweet to hear Hector thank his wife for the show, or probably for convincing him to watch it.

But the action was not confined to the theater as we had a lot of laughter and talks outside of it and within the casino area of Solaire.

It’s probably a popular destination for gamblers as the halls were filled and you’d be surprised to see how young so many of them are and more surprising how they can afford to put down a million-peso in just one bet and have it swept away with nary a blink.

We were standing by a table which we eventually learned was playing baccarat and got curious because of the people milling by and the reactions of those winning and losing just gets to you.

One young guy, probably in his late 20’s with a blond streak on his hair was playing hard at the tables with a huge pile of money in front of him. We thought he was either Chinese or Korean until he lost a round and looked behind him to talk to someone in Tagalog.

We eventually found out after talking to that guy behind him that he was his escort, or a bodyguard I guess and he was the one who explained how the game goes and that his boss had earlier won 2.5 million in a round which explains the people hovering over the table.

When his boss lost that million bet, the bodyguard opened his bag and handed him several bundles more. I cut short myself in time to ask how that young guy can have that much money as I’ll probably get a hard stare.

To make the long story short, after getting out of the theater, which is a good two hours later, that same young guy had transferred tables and was still betting high. For his age, its either he is a son of a filthy rich Chinese family or he must be doing some very illegal things.

I think the anti-drug group must go around our casinos looking at very suspicious people because that “cat” really gave me some chills.*

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