Review: Prison Dancer entertaining, thoughtful

An entertaining, thoughtful, and yes, uplifting show with a few grim reminders that social media videos might not always tell the whole truth.

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Before starting a review of Prison Dancer we should probably give some context.

Back in 2007, a series of videos of dancing inmates in a maximum security prison in the Philippines city of Cebu went viral on YouTube, picking up millions of views. In particular one where 1,500 inmates replicated the choreography to Michael Jackson’s Thriller, zombie lurching in orange jumpsuits while the openly gay Wenjiel Resane cowered in the role of Jackson’s girlfriend. It was a strange yet riveting sight, one that eventually threw up a number of questions despite the warden’s insistence that it was all part of his plan to make exercising fun.

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Were the prisoners being forced to dance? Was the warden really the brains behind the operations? Filipino-Canadian playwrights Romeo Candido and Carmen Leilani De Jesus tackle both of these questions and much more in Prison Dancer: The Musical, playing at the Shoctor Theatre in the Citadel until May 28.

It would have been easy for Candido and De Jesus to crank out a lightweight, uplifting trifle involving intricate choreography and ‘80s bangers, but the show goes deeper than that. Focusing heavily on new inmate Christian and old timer Ruperto, aka Lola, Prison Dancer is like a musical version of the HBO show Oz, or a gritty take on Elvis’s Jailhouse Rock video, except the prisoners are all Filipino and serving time for various drug offences. Heroin in particular; Christian (Daren Dyhengco) is in the process of withdrawing, and Lola (Julio Fuentes) has been clean for years.

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The gender-queer Lola is a recognizable character from any number of prison movies or TV shows, the saviour figure that authorities want to control. Lola is fiercely protective of their flock of prisoners, especially the put upon homosexual population, and determined to bring some joy into the inmates’ lives. Think Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke but in high heels, or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest minus the misogyny and dancing to some pumping house/disco tunes.

It’s Lola who first sets the prisoners dancing, both as a way to take their minds off of their situation but also to prove a point about who owns their bodies. Certainly not the Warden (Jovanni Sy), who preens and postures while attempting to take credit for Lola’s work. Also caught up in the fancy footwork and excellent singing are thoughtful comments on resilience, community, art and especially love. Lola is in a tenuous relationship with Shakespeare (Dominique Brillantes), who has a spouse in the outside world, while Christian attempts to push away his wife Cherish (Diana Del Rosario), thinking that she deserves better than him.

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Sounds very soap opera and there’s definitely an element of that, but Prison Dancer is also often very funny, though not at the expense of the prisoners. It also has a great soundtrack, ranging from the swelling, emotional Evermore (as sung by Cherish) to the dance tunes littered throughout, played by a flexible house band of bass, drums, and piano. The set is all moveable bars, clothes thrown over cell doors, wooden benches, all the better to push and pull around for group dances or more intimate moments.

Prison Dancer has apparently been a long time gestating, and the extra time has served it well. It’s an entertaining, thoughtful, and yes, uplifting show with a few grim reminders that social media videos might not always tell the whole truth. This one is going places, folks; go see it so you can tell people you did before it inevitably hits Broadway.

Prison Dancer
When Until May 28
Where Shoctor Theatre in the Citadel Theatre
Tickets $33.15 and up, available at the door or in advance from citadeltheatre.com.

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