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REVIEW: Prison Dancer at the NAC is a rehabilitating tale of humanity

iPhoto caption: Photo by Dahlia Katz.
/By / Nov 28, 2023

It’s easy to forget how revolutionary social media can be, as it’s become so integral to many of our lives and so many posts come and go at a moment’s notice. Some of the first videos to reach millions of views changed people’s lives — for the characters of Prison Dancer, it was a miracle. 

Back in 2007, several videos of 1,500 inmates dancing at the Cebu Provincial and Detention Rehabilitation Centre in the Philippines gained traction on YouTube; but it was their performance of “Thriller” by Michael Jackson that went viral across the world (just reading the word “viral” provides an idea of how much the platform has changed, as it feels like the term is scarcely used any more). 

When adapting this story into a musical, co-creators Carmen Leilani De Jesus (book) and Romeo Candido (book, music, lyrics) took a nuanced approach to craft the lively Prison Dancer, as no two tales of Internet fame are the same — especially when the stars of the trending tab are inmates on the other side of the world from the stages of the National Arts Centre (NAC) in Ottawa.

The musical follows Lola (Julio Fuentes), a strong-willed, transfeminine inmate and her found family as they welcome the young Christian (Darren Dyhengco), who has been imprisoned after falling victim to a drug-related scam. A new warden (Jovanni Sy) wants to rehabilitate the inmates in a new way with Lola’s help the only way she knows how — through dance.

I’ll be blunt: Prison Dancer is mesmerizing. Having debuted in May at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, the musical is one you will not soon forget. From the grace of the ensemble to the heart of the story and rhythm of the music, you will be overwhelmed by how much love and magic is imbued into this production, thanks to NAC artistic director Nina Lee Aquino’s direction. The characters refer to each other as a family, and they feel so much like one that you may forget the situation they’re in. From the mannerisms to the costumes, there are characteristics and instances of cultural pride that radiate from the stage.

There is so much warmth and significant attention to detail in Kierscey Rand Regozo’s musical direction; the songs are just as much a major character in the show as the dancing. “Christmas Morning” and “The World is Watching” are standouts that hook you into the souls of the inmates. The ensemble effortlessly executes Fuentes’ choreography, as if they’ve been dancing with each other their whole lives.

As much as Prison Dancer is comedic and joyful, the story also centres a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change for many of the convicted characters. Several inmates forget how long they have been incarcerated for and very few see visitors. Not only must Christian grapple with his mistakes and addiction now that he has been imprisoned, but so must his dedicated partner, Cherish (Diana Del Rosario), through a beautiful performance of “Evermore.” Singing about the strength of their love and willingness to persevere through difficult times, Christian and Cherish’s relationship is one that reflects the uneasy realities of many family, friends, and lovers who must adjust to the incarceration of their loved ones and the right ways to support them.

Prison Dancer explores the looming pressures of the inmates achieving Internet fame at a point in time where Twitter was still new, and if they even had the choice to be famous. What may have been a silly four-minute distraction for millions of people was a major opportunity for these inmates, especially under the comically sinister Warden (Jovanni Sy), whose goal is to purify the inmates of “sin” and align them under his belief of what is “good.” His words truly resonate when you are reminded of his dominance over the other characters and wonder if his intentions are innocent at all. The true conflict of the musical heightens when dancing no longer exists as a form of freedom or personal expression, but as an obligation under the intense supervision of the Warden. How much can these oppressive systems take from us?

Prison Dancer doesn’t shy away from the despair that can circulate throughout carceral systems: the dance ensemble has each other to hold onto, but is it enough? This is when the true heart of the production emerges, through both large musical numbers and small exchanges between characters. The rehabilitation of the inmates isn’t simply through the choreography that Lola teaches them, but through the acts of humanity they show to one another. Even when the characters are at their lowest, considering relapsing and pushing each other away, there is love and patience that persists — isn’t that what we all need? 

De Jesus, Candido, and Aquino have created a contemporary classic with Prison Dancer. On the Internet, it’s become increasingly difficult to discern what is real and what isn’t — or even to tell if there is a real human behind a seemingly innocent post. Taking a viral moment in cyberspace history and recontextualizing it with humanity, love, and dance is not an easy feat (especially with trolls lurking around every corner), but the dedication was all worth it. 

And we cannot disregard that this is the first all-Filipino musical production in Canadian history, telling a wholly Filipino story! This is long overdue, and brilliantly conceived with whole-hearted authenticity and honesty. You can feel the excitement and pride radiating from the cast and crew from beginning to end, in every dance step, lighting cue, and set change. 

Don’t think twice: go see Prison Dancer. It is incredible in ways that can only be enjoyed in a theatre. It’s a refreshing and revitalizing production that will tug at your heart and change your life — it’s certainly changed mine. 

Prison Dancer runs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa until December 2. Tickets are available here.

Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.

Amira Benjamin

Amira Benjamin

Amira Benjamin is an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa in sociology and anthropology. She is interested in all forms of journalism, especially arts and community reporting. You can find them critically analyzing Marvel movies or filling up a Pokedex. They are a member of the 2023 cohort of the IBPOC Critics Lab, supported by Intermission Magazine and the Stratford Festival.



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