Theater Review: Musical with a Scent of History

The company of CINNAMON GIRL (Photo by Blake Boyd)

"A nation which does not help and does not encourage its theatre is, if not dead, dying; just as the theatre that does not feel the social pulse, the historical pulse, the drama of its people, and catch the genuine color of its landscape and of its spirit, either laughter or with tears, has no right to call itself theatre, but an amusement hall, or a place for doing that dreadful thing known as “killing time.” —Federico Garcia Lorca

In Los Angeles, there are at least 20 theatrical venues that are buzzing with life onstage, competing with the energies of New York’s Broadway stages. They include La Theater Center, Kirk Douglas Theater, Getty Villa, Pantages, Broad Stage, Geffen Playhouse, Mark Taper Forum.

One of the theater directors preferred by emerging playwrights is Jon Lawrence Rivera, a Filipino-American, who has stayed true to his craft, whose signature is quality. Check his calendar and you will find him directing a play every other month, sometimes back to back.

I have now seen six plays that Rivera has directed: “Dallas Non-Stop” by Boni Alvarez (a Filipino-American); Euripides’ “Helen” by Nick Salamone staged in the august and breathtaking Getty Villa; “The Girl Most Likely To” by Michael Premsrirat; “Flipzoids” by Ralph B. Pena, which will be produced and staged in Manila’s Music Museum this coming July; “Ruby, Tragically Rotund” by Boni B. Alvarez; “Dogeaters” by Jessica Hagedorn, which was staged in the Kirk Douglas Theater.

From top to bottom, it is quality, from the acting, the singing, the lighting, the stage props.

His latest, “Cinnamon Girl,” a musical, showcased two Filipino artists in prominent roles of protagonist (Jennifer Hubilla Quinn) and antagonist (Dom Magwili). It recently ended its run at the  Playwrights’ Arena at Greenway Court Theatre 544 North Fairfax Avenue in West Hollywood. (See more at

I gauge the beauty of a play by how it moves the audience to interpret its dialogue lines, its songs, including the artist’s insights, in performing their roles onstage.  But, proof of a musical’s impact is when you hear your seatmates hum, sing and even move their bodies, with the actors onstage.

The audience loved the lyrics of this song in “Cinnamon Girl,” performed by Magwili as Ranil, the plantation caretaker, who is also the play’s villain. We were listening to his every word. Why? The lyrics are a delicious foreplay to what the audience is about to see, the peak of the conflict.

Jennifer Hubilla (Photo by Blake Boyd)

“Morality’s a
Loser’s wager
Carnality gains
Woman, girl, child, my
Daydreams run wild
Let me breathe
           let me think
                       on the brink
                                   I’m steeped in drink
These evil thought’s such deep guild
I’ve had my fill
Or have I? What control?
With addictions,
Cold winds blow
How I love her
Can’t live without her
Now her daughter – damn!
Looks just like her,
My mind’s all a blur
Please stop me
           please help me
                       look at me
                                   a bankrupt man
Base urges on the verge
Where love
           at what cost?
           I’ve broken
           all the laws

Velma Hasu Houston, who wrote the book and the play, also wrote the lyrics, which captures and carries the feelings of the characters. I appreciated how gifted she can be. With the tunes composed by Nathan Wang, and the direction of Jon Lawrence Rivera, this ensemble cast has everything going for it.

This play, according to Houston’s notes, is “set in 1939 British Ceylon, which was ruled by the British Empire as part of the British Commonwealth from 1815-1948. Before 1972, Sri Lanka was Ceylon.” The story is set in a highlands tea plantation. Can you guess how the seaport is cleverly imagined with the waves, receding back and forth onstage?

(L-R) Dom Magwili, Byron Arreola, Kerry K. Carnahan, and Jennifer Hubilla (Photo by Blake Boyd)

Peter Mitchell (Wendell) sings beautifully as the privileged son of the British tea plantation owner, “Privilege in every pore, rights of others forsaken, rights to call our own,” as he recognizes his status and stature. “Both ways of being, different from status quo, new ways of being, new ways of seeing” signal the play’s transformative elements.

We get to see the evolution of plantation workers who are kept down even as they dream of new lives: “What we do for our own good, what we do to feed our lives, keep your head down and carry on, keep my nose to the grindstone, I’m in my own little home, it is up to me, castles in the skies, pretty everywhere, there’s always magic in the air.”

The lead character of Salani is played by Jennifer Hubilla Quinn, whose ethnicity is referred to as Burgher, a  “mélange of European, Asian and African heritages,” according to the author. Salani is prominently transformed through various emotions of grief, hardship, loss of innocence, finding herself and love.

"Learning to stand on my own
Declaring my independence
I can bear any burden alone
I am the backbone of this land
Learning to stand on my own
I won't let the world define me
It's time for realities not dreams
Real beauty is more than skin deep"

“I've really grown to love the song ‘Learning to Stand On My Own,’” says Hubilla. “Like Salani at this particular point in the show, I've had moments of realization in my own life where I do feel a sense of empowerment, especially after going through times of hardship.  I love the first few lines of the song—‘Real cinnamon trees thrive in native soil.  The fruit ripens and the seeds come alive.  The roots are deep within the earth.’”

Hubilla is prominent in this play, virtually performing on every scene and singing on her own, or as part of a quartet or duet. With barely weeks to know her songs and memorize her dialogues she is very much the professional lead actress we saw moons ago, “Miss Saigon.”  Her voice carries its perfect pitch with not a false note. I can still hear her singing “Castles in the Air.”

Peter Mitchell, Jennifer Hubilla (Photo by Blake Boyd)

Props were minimal, yet the clever juxtaposition of two lifestyles at the same time on stage is effective: the plantation owner’s house with its formal furnishings against the bare floors, wood pallets and mats workers sleep on curled up in fetal positions.

Another effective scene is portrayed by Leslie Stevens as Empress, the plantation owner’s wife, when she sings “Is it love when your feelings are not there, When I am not there, When I don’t pick up the phone, When I don’t have a choice, I have to teach myself,” as she recalls growing up as a sunflower in Wichita.

Kerry Carnahan (Praveena) exceptionally owns her character, and next to pregnant Salani squatting over the harvest, declares “Many men in this world, never found as reliable as my job.”

Byron Arreola (Tourmaline) is credible as both the female sister of Praveena and the male soldier who goes away to fight a war:

“What you see is what you believe, the eye of the beholder, I am soldier, look at me, see me, believe your very eyes, look at me.”

The latter scene gives me goose-bumps. Carnahan’s voice is distinctly higher in octave as a female. Then, when he becomes a soldier, his voice gets lower, as if a bass instrument in tone. This scene has the audience clapping, moved by the powerful performance.

As I exited the playhouse, I asked Terry Lloyd, who works at Paramount Pictures, what he thought of the play: "From top to bottom, it is quality, from the acting, the singing, the lighting, the stage props. The best part, I am walking away with a lesson to learn about history, the production of cinnamon, what they did then, where they came from. It just flowed well."

Every moment counts in “Cinnamon Girl.”

(L-R) Byron Arreola, Anne Yatco, Jaime Barcelon, Jennifer Hubilla, Kerry K. Carnahan, Ren Hanami. Michael Hagiwara (Photo by Blake Boyd)

In 2006, one of director Jon Lawrence Rivera’s peak periods, he directed seven plays with four world premieres—including two at the Edinburgh Film Festival. It was an efficacy rate of 81 percent, sustained at a very high level of quality with a ceaseless flow of creative energy.

Rivera founded Playwright’s Arena, housed in the Los Angeles Theater and now in its 22nd year, to give home to independent playwrights and stage plays with diverse casts of actors and actresses. Imagine nurturing a vision from thin air, which is now a reality and catalyst for substantive plays in Los Angeles.

For his part, DomMagwili, with his wife, Saachiko, pioneered the teaching of Pilipino Cultural Nights (PCNs) at UCLA from 1983 to 2004. For more than two decades, they worked tirelessly in staging PCNs on a shoestring budget, creating magnificent productions. Each year, for a decade and a half, this writer and her husband, Enrique,  took their children, Carlo and Corina, to PCNs to expose them to Filipino culture in Los Angeles. As a result, while at UC Berkeley and at UC Irvine, both became part of PCNs. Carlo danced the La Jota, while Corina performed the Igorot dance onstage.

Magwili was responsible for guiding thousands of young minds towards what “Filipino” means in America and the issues of  immigrants. I recall the best-written script of PCN in UCLA was done by Ted Benito, who also acted the main part of honoring our manongs and Pilipino heroes, pretty much what we are reminded to do today with Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.

Magwili has both theory and practice under his belt, being a graduate of MFA in Acting from Cal State Long Beach, American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco and BA in Communication Arts in San Francisco. He acquired experiences first before getting his MFA in 2008. Perhaps it is why he could write the thesis: “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To An Assassination, a Commentary By A Pilipino American Actor In Stephen Sondheim’s Musical Play, “Assassins.”

He directed for East West Players’ “His Girl Friday,” “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and even toured and directed “Allos: The Carlos Bulosan Story.” He also directed, wrote and produced for Japanese American National Museum’s “Alice’s Jive Bomber Concert,” “The 490” and for the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre’s “Tungo Sa Liwanag.”

Magwili has cleared many career paths, like Jennifer Hubilla Quinn’s. She earned a BFA in Musical Theatre from CSU Fullerton. She played the role of Kim in “Miss Saigon,” touring the US and UK, Mulan in Disney’s “Mulan” (Tuachan Center for the Arts, Princess Jasmine in “Alladin” (Brighton Theatre Royal, UK). She has been a performing arts actress for 12 years.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D.

Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz, J.D. writes opinion-editorials and feature stories for Balikbayan Magazine and Asian Journal Press in Los Angeles. She is a patron of theatre arts, concerts, musical theater, and indie films. She loves to travel to national parks with her husband, Enrique.