Canned orchestral music started. From the wings came a slender, dusky girl in a 1930s blue dress splashed with pink flowers. Her movements were ungainly, she didn't look too attractive and was in danger of being swallowed by the swirl of dancers now congregating on stage. Then, she opened her mouth to sing, and out came an incredible voice, a vast, soulful torrent of sound inexplicably pouring from a tiny frame. She sang her jazz-inflected ditty playfully, powerfully.
Her name was Bituin Escalante, and she was playing “Katy” in the touring production of the landmark Filipino musical that had starred Mitch Valdez many moon cycles ago. That very afternoon at the mall, we became a fan, even if we had no idea who she was.
Since that time, as Escalante burst forth in the national consciousness with more pounds to her frame and the accruing glitter of divahood, we've often gone back to the memory of that afternoon, wondering how she would have burned up the stage had "Katy" been revived full-scale with her in the lead. When would she ever get the chance to rip into the part again?
In the recent stellar concert “Ryan Cayabyab: The Music Man at 50” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Escalante briefly stepped into the role of Katy once again, singing “Aba, 'Ba, 'Ba Boogie" like a force of nature, and in so doing gloriously reaffirmed her dormant claim to this role.
In a night that offered show-stopper after show-stopper in lavish tribute to the country's most well-known composer, Escalante's performance was a high point, a drop-dead incarnation of the combined genius of Cayabyab's music and Jose Javier Reyes' buoyant lyrics.
Too bad it was an all-too-brief moment, sandwiched as it was between the passable growling of Angelika de la Cruz (who played the teenage Katy), and the stirring take by Mitch Valdez on “Minsan ang Minahal ay Ako,” the now-classic stage anthem she and Celeste Legaspi sang in the original show. We never got to see that “Katy," but Valdez's spiky, atmospheric vibrato was enough to bring a glimmer of the magic that must have attended that legendary run...” (“Show-stopper after show-stopper,” PDI, Oct. 24, 2004)
One more valuable stage moment lost to fading memory, I had thought, until show producer Mickey Munoz lent me his DVD file of “Ryan Cayabyab: The Music Man at 50” and gave me permission to post excerpts of the show in this blog. The earlier clip of Grace Nono singing a haunting “Iduyan Mo,” and the “Rama, Hari” suite that reunited Basil Valdez, Kuh Ledesma and Leo Valdez, were also from that show.
Now it's my pleasure to share with you Bituin Escalante in the “Katy!” medley that I had raved about in my review. This time, you won't see Angelika de la Cruz as the teenage Katy, but--tadaaan!--Sarah Geronimo, who would sing a sensational “Pahiram ng Kanta” (she appeared on the first evening of the show, Angelika on the second). Her ebullient turn had me thinking that if “Katy!” got revived, say, a decade from now, Sarah would be perfect for the role. Just listen to her ditch the bland pop singing for once and roar her way through the big, brassy sound of 1930s bodabil (as Mr. Cayabyab had re-imagined it).
Casting, however, is a moot issue at this point. Celeste Legaspi recently announced that Musicat Philippines, the production company behind “Katy!” and other original Filipino musicals (“Larawan,” “Alikabok,” “Kengkoy at Rosing”), will no longer mount shows due to prohibitive costs and sparse audiences. That is tragic news, because Musicat was the only theater company we had that was exclusively dedicated to creating original Filipino musicals.
We may never see a “Katy!” again in our lifetime, so enjoy this all-too-rare clip. (Sorry for the messed-up sound in some parts, couldn't clean it up.)
Performers: JM Rodriguez, Mickey Munoz, Raul Montessa, Topper Fabregas, 92 AD, Sarah Geronimo, Bituin Escalante, The Hotlegs, Mitch Valdez
1. Look closely at Jose Javier Reyes' lyrics for “Aba, 'Ba, 'Ba Boogie.” They not only capture in words the liberating sensations of an era-defining dance, they also demonstrate the versatility and range of our native tongue:
Paa ko'y napapalundag
Malala 'to, napakatindi!
Parang kiti-kiting kinakati-kati
Parang paru-parong 'di mapakali
Kamay at paa, umeekis, sumasalisi
Aba, 'ba, 'ba, ano ba ito?
Aba, 'ba, 'ba, boogie!
2. Wondering how Mitch Valdez originally sang this song? Here, from the original cast album of “Katy!”
[video copyright © ABS-CBN]