‘Skin-Deep’ and ‘EJ’ are musicals that play out like inverse images of each other
TWO MUSICALS, BOTH ALIKE in dignity, in fair Manila, where we lay our scene...
We’re being facetious. Peta’s “Skin-Deep” and Tanghalang Pilipino’s “EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson,” both of which just recently closed after four-week runs, had nothing to do with “Romeo and Juliet.” Even if, in “EJ’s” case, its two protagonists also die and leave the story orphaned in the end.
No, we use the reference only to highlight the fact that “Skin-Deep” and “EJ,” which ran almost simultaneously (the former at Peta Theater Center, the latter at CCP’s Little Theater), were musicals that played out like two halves of the same coin.
But with a difference. They were inverse images of each other, one’s strengths proving to be the other’s weakness, and so forth. They weren’t bad plays—only that their parts were markedly better than the whole, the sprawling canvas proving to be less interesting than the detailed studies.
“EJ” and “Skin-Deep” were tagged as musicals in the sense that music and songs were interspersed with their scenes and dialogue. There was no organic score weaving through and imparting melodic spine to the material, though “Skin-Deep,” with music written by Lucien Letaba and Vince de Jesus (also the playwright), had faint leitmotifs running through it.
“EJ,” meanwhile, transposed the music of the rock band The Dawn to the martial-law era, the lyrics tweaked here and there to reflect the brand-new narrative tacked on to the repertoire.
Repeated viewings of these two productions (for us to catch the revolving leads and their alternates) couldn’t, in the end, shake off comparisons.
“Skin-Deep’s” vivid text could stand without music--would, in fact, be much sharper, wittier for it. “EJ’s” music was glorious, but its libretto (by Ed Maranan, like De Jesus a Palanca winner) was patchy, discursive, flabby. Wishful thinking, but would that the two plays had drawn from each other’s better wells.
“Skin-Deep”--a cautionary play on beauty and its pathologies--was most distinctive as a demonstration of De Jesus’ talent for the zinging, soaring punchline. An acute, perceptive farceur, he lobbed puns and wisecracks with the glee of a stand-up comic, vaulting “Skin-Deep” beyond its civic-moralizing roots into truly funny, entertaining terrain.
The play, pitched at such a ribald level, could have stayed there--a biting and timely Social Studies piece masquerading as pure, faultlessly executed buffoonery. There is, after all, no dishonor in comedy. Instead, every now and then it went slack by attempting to go heavy and serious via music.
“Skin-Deep’s” songs (by Lucien Letaba, with assist from the tireless De Jesus) were, at best, unremarkable; at worst, a drag on the narrative. Except for the soul-tinged “Don’t Take It Out on Me,” which partook of the play’s campy spirit, the flimsy, fragmentary music that each of the characters had to warble tamped down the play’s momentum, dampening its hurtling vitality at crucial moments.
One second “Skin-Deep” shook with an inspired gag, the next it was mired in pensive, pa-melancholy singing. The lyrics were nothing the characters couldn’t express in talk with greater force, or with stronger fidelity to the verbal acuity of the material.
Making her mark
That was true even if “Skin-Deep,” directed by Nor Domingo, had actors who were some of the country’s best musical-theater performers, such as Bituin Escalante, Robert Seña, Isay Alvarez, Rem Zamora and May Bayot.
Alvarez, for one, didn’t have to sing to make a mark. She was moving as a much-put-upon wife (to Seña and Eric Bisa’s alternating misogynist of a husband). Bayot, a spitfire vocalist, whipped up a storm as “Ms Artificial Beauty” Amor de Sangre. But her alternate, Gail Billones, provided a more striking version--her sense of decrepitude garnishing every funny line with rueful pathos.
Zamora and Melvin Lee judiciously went easy on the madness to make their doctor character more human. And Red Anderson, a model by day, delivered a convincing debut on the Peta stage as a bumpkin-turned-sophisticate.
He sang too, though it’s a good bet playgoers wouldn’t remember him for it. His startling transformation in Act 2 was proof enough that beautiful people could be, well, more than skin-deep.
“EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson,” directed by Chris Millado, had flaws and pockmarks that went beyond the superficial. It did get one thing right, though: The Dawn.
The pioneering band’s thrillingly rangy, full-bodied music, a creature of more recent vintage, perfectly captured the restless activist spirit of the Marcos years. The exploding drums, the twanging guitar, Jett Pangan’s astonishingly forceful vocals--they galvanized to surging life the rage and mayhem, the fear and confusion of the country’s long dark night under martial law.
An era-defining rock musical is something we should have had long ago. Broadway has had “Hair,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Rent,” “Spring Awakening.” On purely musical terms, “EJ” showed it could be a compelling stand-in while the definitive original Pinoy rock musical has yet to appear.
It’s on other levels that “EJ” went quite off-key. Maranan’s script had Edgar Jopson (Pangan) and Evelio Javier (Ricky Davao), two Ateneans who didn’t know each other but met similar fates under Marcos, in an imaginary conversation about their respective modes of struggle: communist insurrection for Jopson, nonviolent political struggle for Javier.
While Jopson’s more eventful life is retold briskly (his China sojourn a particularly well-staged set piece), Javier’s became belabored, hagiographical. Over and over, in vignettes that devolved into little more than unevenly acted skits, Javier’s well-documented common touch as Antique governor got lathered on thick.
The worshipful repetitiveness felt almost defensive, as if Javier’s quiet heroism needed buttressing next to the fiery Jopson’s.
Millado’s staging, by turns bumpy and involving, harnessed familiar visual pegs and elements.
The all-seeing, chameleonic narrator (Bong Cabrera alternating with Nar Cabico) recalled “Evita” and “Pippin.” The tables and chairs channeled “Rent.” The barricades, and the barricade assault scored to music and smoke, seemed purloined from “Les Miserables.” And the concert-like microphone-wielding during the songs was a central device of “Spring Awakening.”
The Tanghalang Pilipino ensemble, dressed in confusing, deliberately distressed costumes that were thoroughly unevocative of the ’70s, was vigorous as always. But they, too, looked lost, disconnected.
There was The Dawn, however, and whenever their music roared, nothing else mattered.
“EJ” would eventually crest to a triumphant, heart-wrenching finale, with Davao and Pangan, joined by Stella Cañete and Tex Ordoñez as their characters’ wives, harmonizing on an elegantly elegiac “Salamat.”
For everything else that was ragged and rambling about “EJ,” the sheer beauty of that achingly theatrical moment was a good enough redemption. Salamat, indeed, for the music.