Swedish-Americans have Santa Lucia, Mexicans the quinceañera and in Minnesota, the Filipino-American community celebrates its young leaders with a cotillion on Valentine's Day. Youngsters spend weeks learning a specific Spanish waltz under the tutelage of a stern matron and present themselves as debutantes and escorts in a festive ceremony.
Playwright Eric "Pogi" Sumangil mines this coming-of-age moment for "The Debutante's Ball," which opened in a spunky production Saturday at History Theatre, in partnership with Mu Performing Arts.
Sumangil focuses on the young people who feel the obligations and the honors of participating in an event that memorializes their culture — with all its stiff stereotypes and outdated customs.
"The man is supposed to lead!" barks Tita Belinda, who leads rehearsals with an iron fist.
Patriarchal stuff like that irritates Marli (Joelle Fernandez), but largely she and her friends do what kids do when they are thrown together in such an event. Jun (Jeric Basilio) is tall and handsome, Mondo (Alex Galick) a goofball, Gina (Kylee Brinkman) vain, Ana (Stephanie Bertumen) anxious and preoccupied. Matthew Thao is the standout with a keenly poignant portrayal of a shy kid trying to find the confidence to break out of his shell.
Bertumen gives credible attention to Ana, although here is where the script makes some maudlin choices that veer toward "ABC After School Special."
Sumangil creates three worlds in what is essentially a sketch show. In the first, the young people practice the dance with Tita Belinda. World two takes a while to reveal itself as YouTube representations of Filipino television, music videos and commercials. The third piece is the everyday world. The kids flirt, try on dresses for the ball, visit at the cafe where one of them works and even coax some teen romance with a serenade.
All these episodes are full of youth, both in the playing and in the writing, which gives director Randy Reyes' staging a clubhouse or homemade quality.
If Reyes had made only one decision for this production and that decision was to cast Sherwin Resurreccion as Tita Belinda, he would have earned his salary. Resurreccion's performance as the tough choreographer is gorgeously understated, without ever a hint of caricature. He barely whispers the character's gender, yet he creates a fierce personality from her human center. Even when he slinks and winks, Resur reccion never wastes a gesture and never makes the performance about himself. Sumangil based the character on his godmother and Resurreccion's portrayal honors her. Well done, young man.
Kathy Kohl's costumes are beautifully articulate in what they say about each performer.
This is a simple, charming show — and a reminder that youth is both universal and particular.