The rehabilitative qualities of song and dance are natural subjects for a musical, and have proven gangbuster-workable in The Music Man, The Sound of Music, and too many other shows to count. It's no surprise, then, that someone decided to turn a 2007 YouTube video of 1,500 inmates in a prison in the Philippines recreating the original "Thriller" video into a show — especially after it generated more than 50 million views. Unfortunately, Prison Dancer, playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's through Saturday as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, does not quite succeed at its goal of depicting how even the most beaten-down people can be exalted by the arts. Like many shows of this nature, its execution is nowhere near as good as its intentions.
Romeo Candido and Carmen de Jesus's book efficiently charts how the facility's warden (Andrew Eisenman) conceived his program and how it blossomed into a worldwide phenomenon. (Some of the funniest lines come from regular updates about the video's statistics and bickering over the caustic commenters.) But the exercise rapidly degenerates into a sudsy soap opera in which the arid relationships of the seven lead dancers take precedence over their spiritual transformation. We see how the newest inmate, Christian (Jose Llana), has trouble adjusting to life behind bars, especially when separated from his girlfriend (Catherine Ricafort), how transvestite Lola (Jeigh Madjus) not-so-secretly pines for the brooding seminarian Shakespeare (Moses Villarama), and how the rest come to terms with their crimes and their punishments, but we witness too little of what this means in the grander scheme of their lives — the only reason to make this material a musical in the first place.
A significant detriment is how little dancing there is, given how important it is. Director-choreographer Jenn Rapp has devised a few percussive and swirling routines that alternately suggest the sweep of the "Thriller" venture and tease about the mental states of the men taking the floor. But for the most part they're bewilderingly ornamental, frequently appearing subservient to the cell-bound confabs and more earthly plot concerns that Candido and de Jesus are much more interested in.
Candido's songs, too, are of the generic pop variety: pleasant in the moment but utterly unmemorable, barely capable of conveying feelings on the lyrics, repeating certain stanzas or phrases endlessly with no concrete development, and then evaporating into nothingness before they make salient points. There should be tension, build, and release in any form of musical storytelling, and if Candido and de Jesus are correct that the story probably tells itself, in this form it doesn't do so well enough to justify a two-and-a-half-hour musical with at most an hour's worth of genuine action.
But the biggest problem is that the writers have not settled on whether this is supposed to be Christian's or Lola's story, and that indecision makes the evening one of chaotic imbalance. The most recognizable heart is found in Christian's struggle against himself, a distillation of the broader concerns at play, but having so much dialogue and the opening and closing numbers bestowed upon Lola never lets Christian come as far to the forefront as someone needs to. What results is a confusing assemblage of scenes that never convinces there's anything of true worth at stake to anyone; only a solid anchor can prevent dramatic drift.
Luckily, the cast is spectacular, and capable of overcoming many of the hurdles in their way. The plangently sensitive yet strong-voiced Llana a wonder at conveying Christian's complexities without self-indulgence, and Villarama applying an alluring amount of shading to the tortured Shakespeare. Marc Delacruz and Albert Guerzon effectively round out the cast as two of their rougher cohorts. Madjus is marvelous evoking Lola's various unquenchable passions, but isn't charismatic enough to center our vision in a show that's unable to do it for us.
As messy and unfocused as the evening is, however, there's a daring and moving musical in it somewhere just clawing to get out. The basic framework is there, and becomes visible in the isolated moments the characters grow as a direct result of their dance, but we don't see it often enough. Candido and de Jesus need to spend some serious time considering exactly what they want to say and how they want to say it, and that would mean some heavy-duty rewriting (and likely cutting) to bring the bloated piece into tight, taut line. But if they can satisfactorily address that issue, there's no reason Prison Dancer couldn't do as much as A Chorus Line to show that the line between humanity and the humanities is never as definite as it may sometimes seem.
2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival