Review: There’s life in ‘Colma’

“Colma: The Musical” opens with a bang, eliciting the kind of response similar to what you might have felt watching John Travolta strut down the street to the strains of “Stayin’ Alive” when you first saw “Saturday Night Fever.”

Only here the song is the catchy “Colma Stays,” which pulsates to a rolling series of images of all Colma has offer — from BART to Serramonte to hillsides dotted with houses, and the city’s most famous icons, the cemeteries.

But people are alive and well in Colma, most notably recent high school graduates Billy (Jake Moreno), Maribel (L.A. Renigen) and Rodel (H.P. Mendoza), who unabashedly sing — honest-to-goodness movie musical style — about their home and lives.

It’s the perfect beginning to an always charming, often funny and sometimes touching story about friendship and growing up — the kind of movie that ought to (and has, on the film festival circuit) found audiences outside Colma.

First-time director Richard Wong makes magic on a shoestring budget, although at times the movie does feel a little rough around the edges.

While “Colma: The Musical” sounds like the title of a travelogue, it’s really the best kind of story, one that’s both personal and universal, culled from great material. Mendoza — whose character, Rodel, is a gay Filipino kid who hasn’t come out to his straitlaced dad — wrote the script and killer score that’s packed with memorable tunes.

Rodel hangs out with his pals Maribel, a dedicated drinker and master of obtaining fake IDs, and Billy, a budding thespian who has a dumb job at the mall. They crash a college party, talk with foul mouths, and wonder about what they’re going to do with their lives.

While delightfully choreographed, the musical scene set in a cemetery is one of the few numbers that isn’t particularly surprising. Yet the montage from the community theater production where Billy appears as the “kooky Jewish character” is hilarious; the number’s on-the-mark jab at the genre couldn’t come from a better source. Mendoza, Wong and their heartfelt cast know about which theyjoke.

They couldn’t have made this enchanting film if they weren’t unapologetic about loving musicals themselves.

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