Review: ‘Dani Girl’ is a Whimsical, Heartwarming Ride

In its fifth anniversary, premier theater production company, The Sandbox Collective, goes full circle by bringing back a career-building offering that undoubtedly solidified its place in the theater scene. Toff de Venecia returns at the steering wheel as he once again helms the restaging of the unforgettable musical that bravely navigates pain and suffering, life and death in the eyes of a child, together with long-time collaborators 9 Works Theatrical.

Dani Girl, A Musical about Hope traces the trying times in the life of a young girl, Dani Lyons (played by Rebecca Coates), a nine-year-old patient stricken with leukemia. Set in early 1990s in the pediatric ward of a Pittsburgh hospital, we see Dani battling the resurgence of the disease with her mother, Katherine (Sheila Valderrama-Martinez), and roommate-turned-best friend Marty (Luigi Quesada), who is suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, otherwise mockingly regarded by Dani as “the sissy of cancers”, and her imaginary friend and “guardian angel”, Raph (played to perfection by Lorenz Martinez).

Quesada, Martinez, and Coates during the press preview of the restaging of Dani Girl: A Musical about Hope. | Image by Danielle Veluz

As the musical progresses, we join Dani in her journey as she strives to look for answers on bettering her condition, starting from the search for her hair to journeying to heaven in order to fight off Mr. Cancer in a lightsaber duel–all in a whimsical quest powered by her imagination. Here, you see Dani stuck in the confines of her hospital room, but she’s never dreary, nor stagnated by her condition. On the complete opposite, she was inspired, vigilant, and inventive–alone or otherwise.

All of this were carried out with such sincere, childlike wonder and candor that Dani innocently talks about the disease matter-of-factly—and that’s largely where the magic of the production lies. The narrative flowed effortlessly, showing the character not as a victim of the illness but a warrior who chooses to put her fate into her own hands—the way a child would.

To Dani, learning of her condition is not a death sentence but a fourth-grade exam she needs to ace or a game she needs to win against her pal. She refuses to succumb to a sense of finality, knowing her condition. But an ordeal she can and should triumph from.

The focus on seemingly inane issues like the loss of her hair, down to the devastating yet needed sacrifice of her teddy bear in search for an answer to “Why is cancer?” were all strokes of genius that gently hid the vastness of the harrowing subject matter of cancer, its implications and lasting impact to a patient’s life in jaw-dropping spectacle and song numbers–woven with so much sensitivity and maturity that it allows the viewer to gently peel through the layers and feel.

Roommates-turned-best friends are Becca Coates as Dani Lyons and Luigi Quesada as Marty. | Image by Danielle Veluz

In staging Michael Kooman’s and Christopher Dimond’s off-broadway musical, De Venecia explores a familiar, heavy subject but looks at it in a different light by whipping up an extraordinary experience that highlights not just the universality of its central character’s inner struggles, but the relatability of her spirit.

Cancer or no cancer, Dani’s person is brimming with curiosity, playfulness, and imagination. But at her very core lies a yearning for answers. In key, carefully-planned moments, the production injects humor and wit without trivializing or downplaying the plight of its central figures.

During press night at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza, De Venecia reunites with Coates, who reprises her role back in 2014. Five years after she first donned the hospital gown and prosthetics for the titular role, Coates gives yet another strong, nuanced portrayal. She was as entertaining as she was complex and well-rounded performance–just pure, heartwarming entertainment.

Now at 21, Coates continues to command the stage, suspending audiences’ disbelief, first as a kid shy of 10 years old, then as a cancer patient who’s no stranger to the hospital, seizures, and medications, all the while gifting vocal performances worthy of standing ovations.

Martinez, as Raph, the figment of Dani’s imagination, is another standout. Not a dull moment when he graces the stage, sprightly dishing song number after song number and interacting with Dani in numerous accents and noteworthy vocal performances. Quesada, like Coates, returns to his role five years ago, as the aloof, pop-culture obsessed Marty with so much heart, the same with Valderama- Martinez as the hurting solo parent enduring the pain of seeing her daughter slowly deteriorate.

For its 2019 offering, aimed at upping the ante of the production, De Venecia employed tricks that updated how the 2014 staging was carried out—from the makeshift lightsaber battle, the screen projections courtesy of Joee Mejias, the camera-to-screen game show sequence, the larger-than-life centerpiece in the stage design of Faust Peneyra, and of course, the musical direction of Ejay Yatco.

Dani Girl has all the opportunity to resort to melodrama to elicit the kind of emotions it wants the audience to feel but it didn’t. Instead, it relied on sensitively transporting the audiences to a sincere emotional journey—banking on heart and not mere theatrics, leaving no audience member untouched by the resilience and purity in character of its lead.

From its press conference to the welcome remarks, De Venecia and marketing director of The Sandbox Collective Sab Jose has noted, “The world has turned dark and bleak with so much negativity.  Now is a time to turn to a little hope. And isn’t hope best seen through the eyes of a child?” In every level, The Sandbox Collective, and 9 Works Theatrical, through Dani Girl, succeeds.

Catch the restaging of Dani Girl: A Musical About Hope until September 1, 2019 at the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium of the RCBC Plaza. Felicity Kyle Napuli, fresh from her roles as Matilda and young Nala in The Lion King, alternates as Dani, while 15-year-old Daniel Drilon, from Fun Home and Newsies alternates as Marty. Julienne Mendoza as Raph, while Pam Imperial takes on the role of Dani’s mother, Katherine.