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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, September 4, 2004

'Philemon' at UH dark but well done

By Joseph T. Rozmiarek
Advertiser Drama Critic

You have a chance this weekend to see a little-produced musical by Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt, creators of the longest-running off-Broadway hit, "The Fantasticks."


8 tonight and 2 p.m. tomorrow.

Ernst Laboratory Theatre, University of Hawai'i-Manoa

$10; 956-7655
"The Fantasticks" opened in 1960 and played for 42 years before closing in 2002.

"Philemon" opened in 1975 and played for only 12 performances, although it was resurrected four months later and played an additional 48 times.

Making comparisons and trying to figure out what happened would be reason enough for theater buffs to take in this rare production at the University of Hawai'i Laboratory Theatre. But be prepared in advance that "Philemon" is unremittingly dark; the title character sings his final number while being carved up by an executioner's sword. This is not "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum."

The challenge to director Allyson Paris in taking on this show is to deliver the message without sinking too deeply into its emotional mire.

The message comes across loud and clear. The title character transforms from self-serving to self sacrificing by impersonating someone else. Finding variety in that conversion is where this production falls short.

The historical Philemon was an early Christian and the recipient of a letter authored by Saint Paul. The letter becomes a minor homily on the capacity of Christians to forgive someone who has wronged them and on God's purpose in allowing sin to occur.

Jones and Schmidt take this starting point and center their story in ancient Antioch, where both Christians and Jews are being summarily exterminated by pragmatic and amoral Roman soldiers.

As the story opens, the real Philemon has recently been captured and executed, but the Roman Commander hatches a scheme to imprison an impostor Philemon to act as a mole and rat out other Christians.

The likely candidate for this unsavory task is a down-and-out street performer named Cockian who has no firm moral code or ethical standard. Cockian has sunk so low that he's trying to convince his partner Kiki to turn to prostitution for a bit of money.

With some persuasion and a bit of threat from the Roman Commander, Cockian takes on the job of imposter.

But playing the saintly Philemon sinks deeper into Cockian's fiber than anyone intended. At first he exposes a young man who looks up to him and who represents his lost son. But later he refuses to reveal a list of Christian names he has been given by a trusting woman. Cockian has been transformed by love of others to perform his first truly altruistic act. It ends in his death.

There is some humor in the show's early scenes as Cockian and the Commander agree that "The Streets of Antioch Stink" and that "I'd Do Almost Anything to Get Out of Here and Go Home." There is some sweet fantasizing with "My Secret Dream." But when the mood turns, it turns completely and inexorably.

Alvin Chan does good work in the title role and hits all the necessary emotions.

Daniel Akiyama has the right innocent tone as the young man and Pedro Haro adds counterpoint as the Roman Commander searching for order. Lei Sadakari, Coty Ishitani, and Jennifer Bolieu sing well in the women's roles.

James Santos is the musical director and leads a small hidden combo. Scenic designer Jungah Han makes imaginative use of the fluid playing area.

But while "The Fantasticks" seems destined to live on forever in revivals (including a production in March at Diamond Head Theatre), a staging of "Philemon" is understandably rare.