Dani—the girl who fought cancer
“What can you say about a girl who died?” The girl in Erich Segal’s book “Love Story” happened to be 25 when she died, setting off a flood of tears from readers and a memorable movie that launched the careers of Ryan O’Neal and Ali McGraw.
But the girl who dies (no need for a spoiler alert, because it seems kind of inevitable) in “Dani Girl” is all of nine years. And the tears, at least for this member of the audience, come only toward the end, when Dani’s search for answers, especially the one for the most crucial question—Why is cancer?—reaches its timely conclusion.
On the way there is a romp that combines fantasy, comedy, sci-fi, and plenty of music, defying the somewhat morbid tale of a girl with leukemia who wants an explanation for her illness, and redemption in a brighter future where she is able to grow back her hair. So that, even at the end, despite the sad ending, we feel Dani’s exaltation at her freedom, and her final understanding that in life, as in death, some things, like cancer, just ARE.
For this we should be grateful to writers Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, who penned the music, book and lyrics of “Dani Girl.” And to Sandbox Collective, specifically to founder Toff de Venecia, who is also the director and executive producer of the play, and all the young people behind the production for betting on an off-Broadway production that dares defy the cheery formula for theatrical success.
Though burdened with a somewhat gloomy premise, “Dani Girl” provides plenty of laughs, heartfelt song numbers, soaring hope and uplifting sentiment. It is indeed, as the blurbs say, “a musical good for the soul.”
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Ongoing at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium at RCBC Plaza (until July 27), “Dani Girl” opens with a funeral for a stuffed rabbit and for Mr. Fritz, Dani Lyons’ teddy bear, who is stricken, oddly enough, with ovarian cancer.
Through flashbacks, dreams and games, we are told of Dani’s struggle with leukemia, which has returned with a vengeance and necessitates the shaving of her hair. She is convinced that if she is able to puzzle out the answer to the question “Why is cancer?” she would get well and recover her hair. What she gets instead is a new roommate, Marty, a boy also stricken with cancer, who accompanies her in her search for answers, since Marty is a fervent believer in superheroes and in movies.
But other questions bedevil the young girl. One is what happened to her father, who has disappeared from her life. Another is why God has allowed cancer to enter her and Marty’s bodies, wreaking destruction. As to Marty’s contention that cancer is punishment for something they must have done in the past, Dani counters it isn’t possible, because “I’m fairly certain I’m perfect.”
Dani’s mother believes the only answer is faith: in Dani’s doctors, in medicine, and in God. Dani thinks the answers lie elsewhere, maybe within the bloodstream of her beloved Mr. Fritz, or maybe in heaven. Her and Marty’s search brings them to various adventures, including a “Star Wars” light-saber battle with the embodiment of evil: cancer.
Throughout, Dani is bravery itself, stalwart and true, but sadly, cancer is winning.
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The staging is simple and stark. The set consists of just two hospital beds and a metal construction that is at times a space ship, a tumor, a hiding place. Toward the end, a monster piece hovers above the actors, the symbol of—what? death, evil, bad things happening to good people, especially children?
As Dani, Rebecca Coates (with Mitzie Lao as alternate) could have wrung all the bathos she wanted from her role. Instead, she is all spunk and spirit, defying her mother’s earnest intentions and insisting on her “fantasies” and the escape they allow. Playing her partner-in-adventure is Luigi Quesada, endearingly dorky, but matching Dani’s daring every step of the way. Shiela Valderrama as Dani’s mother is wise to play it low-key, but in her big musical turn, the song “The Sun Still Rose” she showcases her powerful voice and compelling acting.
Still, the most dynamic and versatile performer in the cast is Reb Atadero, who plays Raph, Dani’s guardian angel, who guides her through her search for answers and then essays other roles, notably that of cancer itself. At one point he surfaces as Pablo, who raps about the temptations and relief that drugs offer, a turn that draws wild applause from an appreciative audience.
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Astounding indeed, and—I have said this many times before—how “deep” is the bench of theatrical talent on the Philippine stage. Most of the cast of “Dani Girl” are “just” teenagers, but their youth is no hindrance to a deeply felt performance, and gives them a distinct advantage in terms of conveying energy, feeling and sincerity.
Also, despite their youth, the actors have a fairly long list of theater accomplishments and experience to boast of. And truly inspiring are their young voices that tackle the challenging songs and musical arrangements with verve and vivacity.
The same can be said of the young De Venecia, whose “baptism of fire” as a director and producer “Dani Girl” is. Remarkable, truly, how, for a newbie, he succeeded in staging a challenging and not exactly commercially viable debut.
A vote of confidence, then, to the young people behind The Sandbox Collective, together with their collaborators in 9 Works Theatrical (Anna Santamaria is co-executive producer), for their daring ventures, and their commitment to the uplift of local theater.
By the way, the evening we watched, Toff’s mother, Rep. Gina de Venecia, bought the show for the benefit of the child patients in the PGH Cancer Ward. So many “real” Danis abound. May “Dani Girl” provide them hope, encouragement and comfort!
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