Friday, February 22, 2013

CONVERSATIONS | The Love Songs of Ali Ewoldt and Adam Jacobs

I met Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt, two of the most exceptional Broadway artists working today, at the Ugly Kitchen in the Lower East Side. (The food was delicious, by the way.) Adam and Ali were preparing for a concert at Town Hall on Saturday February 23. 

This was not the first time we've met. Adam and I first met at a fabulous dinner in the apartment of the former Consul General of the Philippines in New York Cecilia Rebong located in the Upper East Side.  Ali was introduced to me by my friend Jose Llana.  Ali, Jose and I traveled to Romania together.  We were the American guest artists at an international festival of musical performing artists in Bucharest.

The concert's producers tell me that tickets for A Heart Full of Love are priced at $20. That's an exceptional price for what promises to be a wonderful 90-minute evening. 

Believe me: Adam and Ali are the real deal. Just click the video excerpt from a rehearsal at the end of this piece. What follows is our conversation:

NEW YORK CITY |  What’s the concert about? Love, actually.

“It’s an exploration of love,” says the supremely talented Broadway actor Adam Jacobs (The Lion King), “There are many different types of love, and the concert features a wide array of styles and music from different shows.”

To which Ali Ewoldt, the divinely operatic singer-dancer (West Side Story) adds, “Through songs, we examine love for a child, love for performance in theater, love between two people that we explore in our duets, love and prayers. You don’t want a concert like this to be one-note. For me it is exciting and interesting and innovative.”

New York City’s famous venue Town Hall regularly sees and hears an array of Broadway stars and so-and-so’s on its wide stage.  Some of them profess about love even.  What’s special about A Heart Full of Love  – a one-night-only concert 8 p.m. Saturday February 23 — is the match-up between Adam Jacobs and Ali Ewoldt:  the freshness of their talents on vivid display.

Both Ewoldt and Jacobs sport real singing chops.  Ewoldt, a petite brunette soprano, can sing beautiful circles around so many of her peers. Jacobs, with his dark eyes and olive skin, takes on vocal challenges that allow him to move from pride rock (Simba in The Lion King) to romantic heights (The Light in the Piazza).

Many of the compositions featured in A Heart Full of Love trade in fresh novelty. Where else but here can you hear gorgeous songs from a new musical composed by Filipino-American composer Fabian Obispo (The Long Season)? How else will you sample the works from the rising songwriting team Sam Carner and Derek Gregor (Sing But Don’t Tell and The Island Song)?

About 90 minutes long, performed without an intermission, A Heart Full of Love reunites two alums of Broadway’s Les Misérables (she was the Cosette to his Marius), and for those movie-musical aficionados who could not stand to watch live-singing on film, here is a real live performance where you won’t need to scream a scream as time goes by.

Adam Jacobs, Ali Ewoldt and me at the Ugly Kitchen in New York
So heartfelt is the stage chemistry between Jacobs and Ewoldt that they were handpicked instantly for this concert after they were seen together at a gala event last year.  At a recent photo call at the Ugly Kitchen in the Lower East Side, Jacobs recalls that this Town Hall Concert came about after the two singers were showcased in the 50th anniversary of the Filipino Reporter, a local publication. Within days of that guest appearance last year, the Town Hall was booked for a February stint.

“It’s going to be a fun ride,” Jacobs says. “Our musical director David Dabbon has come up with brilliant mash-ups of popular Broadway pieces.  I look forward to performing those songs. Audiences will recognize the tunes but will hear them in a new way.” And the handsome actor, who has also memorably tackled Tony, the love-struck toughie in West Side Story and the Engineer pimp in Miss Saigon, has prepared a specific set of numbers which will show a different side of himself as a performer.

“I will give you a hint,” says Jacobs, who will soon star as the masked legend Zorro in the Alliance Theatre production of the Gipsy Kings-scored musical that will play Atlanta, Georgia, in April. ”It is a foray into a ‘new genre.’ I don’t want to give too much away, but it is not music from a specific show. I will foray into another side of myself which I know other people have not seen.” In other words, it teases us into seeing Jacobs anew, had he taken an alternative direction in his career.

Ewoldt relishes the opportunity to extend herself in new ways, too. She says, “Vocally I am doing coloratura stuff that I have not done before. I will do physical comedy things. I will sing a song in Tagalog language, which I have never done professionally before.

Ewoldt describes a song she will perform called “I Won’t Mind” written by Jeff Blumenkrantz as “simple but heartfelt and honest and really gorgeous and emotional.”

Ewoldt then introduces me to composer Sam Carner, who is sitting nearby. Gregor says that A Heart Full of Love gives him a chance to shine through three songs from different shows that he and his songwriting partner Derek Gregor have written.

Adam Jacobs will sing a solo from their new musical comedy Unlock’d, about four star-crossed lovers in 18th century England, which won a Richard Rodgers Award and went on to be produced at the 2007 New York Musical Festival. Unlock’d will premiere Off-Broadway this coming summer with the Prospect Theatre Company at the Duke on 42nd St.

Thanks to the enthusiastic singers from Broadway Barkada who will accompany Ewoldt and Jacobs, A Heart Full of Love will also feature a group number called “So Many Windows” from Island Song, a new Cartner and Gregor musical that has been in development since 2009 and will receive a workshop in Seattle.

“Ali and I went to college [Yale University] together, but we did not know each other then,” Carner recalls. “We ended up speaking in a panel as alums back in Yale. We chatted for several hours on train trip.  I introduced her to my writing partner, and we started working together on various projects.”

The last time Ewoldt and Jacobs sang together on a concert stage was an all-Filipino tribute show for musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim at Lincoln Center in 2011.  They sang “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. What is their takeaway after being paired so frequently? Mutual respect, actually.

“When we were working on Les Miz, it was very easy to fall in love with Ali every night,” Jacobs says. “To share with her an entire concert is a real treat. We’ve performed together before but nothing on this scale.”

To which Ewoldt adds, “I love working with Adam. We’ve become really good friends over the years. This concert is a great challenge for us, a great chance to expand.” -- rg

Town Hall is located at 143 W. 43rd St. For tickets, priced at $20, visit

Conceived by Victor Lirio, A Heart Full of Love will benefit the 3rd The Outstanding Filipino Americans in New York (TOFA-NY) Awards, an annual award ceremony that recognizes exemplary Filipino-Americans in the New York tri-State held in October; and the Mindoro Healthcare Consulting’s current research to find a cure for multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

BREAKING NEWS | Philippine Opera to Take Manhattan

NEW YORK CITY |  A landmark opera based on the great novel by the Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal will be staged in full orchestral splendor for the first time in the East Coast.

At a January 31 town hall hosted by the Philippine Center, a committee of Fil-Am New Yorkers, led by the industrialist and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis and Consul General Mario L. de Leon Jr., announced that Noli Me Tangere: The Opera – the operatic retelling by National Artist Felipe Padilla de Leon of Rizal's 1887 novel with a libretto by fellow National Artist Guillermo Tolentino – will alight at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York in the first week of October 2013.

"All roads lead to New York," said Nicolas Lewis.  "Here is a Filipino, Felipe de Leon, who has created a world-class opera based on Rizal's 'Noli Me Tangere.' It will be be sung by a diverse cast in the Filipino language, and it will be performed here in New York. Nothing happens in the world if it does not happen in New York."

Baritone Karrel Bernardo, New York producer Gerardo Gaddi, emcee Randy Gener, arts leader and lawyer Loida Nicolas Lewis
The aim of the town hall was to foment a grassroots community support in the tri-state area. Nicolas-Lewis enlisted the efforts of, among others, Aida Bartoleme of the Foundation for Filipino Artists which promotes Philippine arts and culture in New York, as well as Jose L. Ramos, chapter commander of the Order of the Knights of Rizal. Karrel Bernardo, a baritone, and Rogelia Peñaverde Dr., a tenor, sang two popular De Leon songs ("Sapagkat Mahal Kita" and "Ako'y Pilipino), accompanied by Michael Dadap (guitar) and Dr. Rene Dalandan (piano).

"The Philippines has now shed its title as 'Sick Man of Asia' and is now considered a rising star," said Nicolas-Lewis. "Our mother country is now number 3 around the world in Growth Domestic Product for 2012.  We extended a $1-billion loan to the International Monetary Fund to to stabilize the ailing economy of our former colonial master Spain. What does all this have to do with the Noli? It is time for us Filipino Americans to show the world that we are a cultured people. When we got together, the host committee, our decision was, 'Let's start early.' Let us bring the community together because this opera production is not for us. It is for the Philippines and our Philippine culture."

This ambitious and expensive staging of the Noli opera promises to be a milestone in almost every respect. It comes at the heels of the 75th year of the proclamation of a national language based on the Tagalog dialogue on December 30, 2012. That date also marks the 100th year since the remains of Rizal were reinterred in the Luneta monument dedicated to him.

Consul General de Leon added that this "Noli" opera is "ground-breaking" because it celebrates the birth centennial of the prolific Felipe Padilla de Leon (no relation): a fervent nationalist who was famous for translating the lyrics of the Philippine national anthem from the original Spanish to Tagalog in the early 1900s.

"These men and women are working to bring to both Filipino-American and mainstream audiences the artistry of Felipe Padilla de Leon, whose birth centenary is being celebrated from May 2012 to May 2013," said ConGen Mario de Leon. "While most of us are probably familiar with his more popular songs such as 'Noche Buena,'  'Payapang Daigdig,' and 'Pasko na Naman' – all classic Filipino Christmas songs – this is an opportunity to know more about the artistic legacy of Maestro de Leon. I hope we will all support this endeavor which aims to introduce new audiences to the musical genius of one of national artists."

Dr. Jose Rizal
The organizers asked for the support and blessing of De Leon's two sons. They are Felipe Padilla de Leon Jr., a composer, scholar, professor and the new chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in the Philippines, as well as Bayani Mendoza de Leon, a composer, musician and ethnomusicologist, who appeared before the town hall gathering via Skype.

Because Rizal's novel was instrumental in forging a unified Filipino national identity and consciousness at a time when Filipino natives strongly identified with their respective regions, Bayani Mendoza de Leon noted that the Noli has been translated into different languages, made for film and for television, and has been variously adapted to a musical.

His father worked closely with Guillermo Tolentino, who was obsessed with the novel, to re-cast into a distinctively Filipino opera using the European opera format. Born in Peñaranda, Nueva Ecija, Felipe Padilla de Leon was known for assimilating and indigenizing western music forms. DeLeon and Tolentino then followed it in 1970 with an opera version of El Filibusterismo, the sequel to Noli Me Tangere. Both novels are credited for detailing, satirizing and exposing the ills of Philippine colonial society with its neck under the boot of corrupt Spanish rule. Rizal's execution was entirely attributed to his work as a writer.

Because of its Rizal provenance, De Leon's Noli opera has enjoyed a longer life than most Filipino operas. Completed in 1950, it has been performed in 1957, 1987 and in 2011 to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Rizal.

De Leon's Noli opera was, however, not the first Filipino opera ever written. That honor belongs to Sandugong Panaginip, a 1902 work with a libretto by Pedro Paterno and music by Ladislo Bonus. The difference is that Sandugong Panaginip was a one-act Tagalog opera made up of five scenes, while De Leon's Noli opera was written with two acts, making it the country's first full-length grand opera.

The complete Noli opera has rarely been fully staged with a full orchestra. Until last year, it has never received a major production in the United States. Most Noli productions are either concert versions or musical vignettes that rework the sociopolitical relevance of several indelible characters (usually women, such as Maria Clara; Salome, the lover of Elias; and Sisa).

Past efforts to fully stage the Noli opera in the U.S. had came to naught.  De Leon's opera eventually had its U.S. debut in May 2012 under the auspices of Chicago's da Corneto Opera.

"Rizal's Noli is not just about the struggles of the Filipinos to fight against oppression by the Spanish rule that lasted close to 400 years," says Michael Dadap, artistic and music director of Children's Orchestra Society of Manhasset, NY, who will serve as the music director of the Noli staging in New York. "Today, we are facing different faces of oppression caused by greed, poverty and intolerance.  The opera's relevance is still very real at present."

Dadap said that the Noli will prove to be a revelation to "many young Filipinos who are either transported or born here in the United States. "Many of them are not familiar with the 'Noli,' nor can they relate to the experiences of oppression (from the Spanish  to the Marcos regime)," said Dadap. "De Leon's opera is not just about getting entertained by listening to orchestra music, beautiful singing, elegant staging and acting. I believe it's about bringing the message and vision of the greatest Malay, Jose Rizal, who opened our eyes giving us empowerment to be strong, independent and free."

Dadap; Bernardo, a Chicago-based opera singer, and Gerardo Gaddi, a New York producer, hired an emerging playwright/director, May Nazareno, to ensure that the New York staging of the "Noli" opera incorporates the issues and struggles that young Fil-Ams face in their personal lives today.

"When the offer to produce this show in New York City was laid out by Loida Nicolas Lewis, we jumped on the chance," said Bernardo. "The vision we have for New York is to make it more realistic and grounded in its approach."

The Noli opera will be performed by a multi-ethnic cast of opera singers for whom Tagalog will likely be a foreign language.  Bernardo said, "We want to appeal to a diverse audience and make the opera more attractive and affordable to the younger demographics while still creating an interest to mainstream opera enthusiasts in the process. My vision is to bring people together, and what better way to accomplish that than through the arts."

"The idiom or lingo may be different but the truth and substance has not changed," Dadap added. "Rizal was God's messenger to awaken us all. De Leon's opera version from the novel is a vehicle serving as a powerful reminder that we Filipinos must not forget the struggles of our race. Over a century later, Rizal's words and wisdom still ring true."

Full disclosure: I was engaged by the Noli committee to serve as the emcee of this Philippine Center town-hall meeting.

New York Committee of the Staging of the Noli Me Tangere The Opera
(L-R Seated): Aida Bartolome, Loida Nicolas Lewis, Consul General Mario L. de Leon, Michael Dadap.
9Standing L-R): Jose L. Ramos, Dr. Angie Cruz, Randy Gener, May Nazareno, Gerardo Gaddi, Karrel Bernardo, Dr. Rene Dalandan, Deputy Consul General Tess Dizon De Vega at Kalayaan Hall of the Philippine Center