Who would have thought that a viral video could inspire a wonderful, original new musical? In 2007, a video of Philippine prison inmates dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" became an internet sensation, leading the creators of Prison Dancer: The Musical, playing at The Theater at St. Clements, to imagine the lives of seven of those prisoners. Among them is a hardened death row inmate, a bitter newcomer who rebuffs his devoted girlfriend's efforts to help him, and a sweet-natured but tough transsexual who is given the task of teaching the prisoners to dance as a part of a unique rehabilitation program.
While there is no full re-enactment of the YouTube sensation in the show, this is such a powerful story, full of rich, delightful characters, that that's beside the point. Carmen de Jesus and Romeo Candido give us a warm, witty book that does a great job showing how every aspect of the dancing transforms the lives of these troubled criminals. For them, the simple act of dancing facilitates cooperation between former enemies, helps the inmates use their pent-up energy in a positive way rather than fighting, provides them personal fulfillment, and eventually attracts worldwide attention.
Unusual for a musical, Prison Dancer has a DJ (Nicole Swartzentruber) accompanying the singers, helping bring Candido's electronica and keyboard-heavy score to life. An impressive showcase of Filipino talent, the production boasts a cast that is excellent across the board. Jose Llana and Jeigh Madjus in particular get moments to shine vocally in soul-searching ballads, and everyone gets an opportunity to show off their dance skills, notably in the show's joyous finale. (The captivating choreography is provided by director/choreographers Jenn Rapp and Ricky Whitfield.)
Except for the basic premise, Prison Dancer is not based on fact, but it offers an interesting take on what might have happened "behind-the-scenes" of that striking viral video. These characters' tragedies, near-tragedies, and triumphs make for a compelling story of hope and survival in a terrible place.
-- Brooke Pierce