Monday, September 06, 2010

Two Filipino classics, transposed to the key of youth

Philippine Daily Inquirer, 09.06.2010

Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Banaag at Sikat” still needs ripening; Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Walang Sugat” quickens the pulse

AH, “SPRING AWAKENING,” what have you done?

Duncan Sheik’s blockbuster Broadway musical, with its central motif of period-specific characters whipping out microphones to channel their inner rock stars in moments of overwhelming rage and confusion, appeared to have loomed large over the proceedings of Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Banaag at Sikat,” which had a recent two-week run at CCP’s Little Theater.

For starters, the production, directed by José Estrella, with music by Lucien Letaba and libretto by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera (based on the 1906 Tagalog novel of the same name by Lope K. Santos), had the moxie to bill itself a “rock musical,” even using the black-red-white color branding that has become a visual stamp of “Spring Awakening.”

This isn’t the first time a TP production employed the same device for an original Filipino musical. Chris Millado’s “EJ: Ang Pinagdaanang Buhay nina Evelio Javier at Edgar Jopson” in 2008 also had its circa-1970s characters singing concert-style. But that production had the perfect excuse--the score was, in fact, a rearranged catalogue of radio hits by the popular rock band The Dawn.

“Banaag at Sikat” was, from the beginning, touted to be an experiment in bringing a pioneering but nearly forgotten work of Philippine literature to younger audiences through the default musical idiom of their age.

To this end, while the characters sported flouncy period costumes and the story remained rooted in its turn-of-the-century milieu, at big moments an electric guitar, a speaker and various microphones appeared, and the actors themselves transformed--if only temporarily--into the twitchy, bellowing inhabitants of a concert arena.

The experiment, it is our dispiriting duty to report, was a letdown. It was a musical, all right, with moments of captivating melody and impassioned singing by a cast of crackerjack voices (Ayen Laurel, John Arcilla and Greg de Leon were the standouts).

But the sound wasn’t rock. It was more like ’70s-flavored pop, and with a pinched, constrained vibe at that, the score lacking both aural kick and emotional gravity.

Brilliant lines
Letaba’s musical matrix of 30-odd songs inevitably felt overlong and saggy in patches, but it didn’t seem to have much to work with from the start. Lumbera, a peerless lyricist, spun brilliant lines for the songs (“Pagsasama nating bigkis ng habilin/sa isang timbanga’y laging nakabitin/tuwing ginagalaw, kahit man ng hangin/ang akala nati’y pagsapit ng dilim”). But when it came to teasing out a compelling dramatic structure from Santos’ devilishly long-winded novel, the “Banaag at Sikat” he wrote for the stage turned out to be an impressionistic blob, its force and logic diffused by the episodic, snapshot quality of the storytelling.

For a story about the rise of organized labor movement in the Philippines, the workers were, surprisingly, a mere backdrop to the domestic drama this “Banaag at Sikat” decided to busy itself with. Their oppressed status was the subject of much livid talk and a couple of set pieces, but not much else by way of insightful presentation.

Instead, the rejection by the young woman Meni of her privileged life in favor of the working-man Delfin was supposed to portend the splintering of the moneyed class. But defiant love across the social divide is an older, much more commonplace theme than the notion that its appearance in one family now heralded the birth of socialism and the decline of the “naghaharing-uri.”

Santos’ conceit--and Lumbera’s adoption of it--to yoke one to the other felt at best contrived and rather histrionic.

Which you could also say of those microphones, their spotty appearance meant to bestow a touch of modern, ironic intensity to choice musical moments, but only inviting confusion because many more songs were sung “naturally”--that is, as part of the dialogue, flowing naturally from it, and not as overt performance pieces.

Except for the cast’s spunky turns, which tended to be the show’s redeeming grace, everything about this “Banaag at Sikat”--from narrative to staging to musical DNA--was as yet unfocused and uncertain, as if needing more time and care to achieve ripeness. Perhaps, in that sense, it did serve something relatable to its young audience.

Different tack
For “Banaag at Sikat,” National Artist Salvador Bernal designed a scenery of overlapping floor-to-ceiling capiz panels that suggested the layers of propriety, custom and status one had to live with in colonial-era Filipino society.

For Tanghalang Ateneo’s “Walang Sugat,” restaged in August at Ateneo’s Irwin Theater after an initial run in February this year, Bernal took a different, more upfront tack. His set design of whimsical, pop-up, children’s-book illustrations became all of a piece with the production’s express spirit of introducing, and making palatable, the lost art of the sarsuwela to students and young people.

Though it predated the Broadway musical by nearly 50 years, and despite the variance in conventions, “Walang Sugat” (1902) can be seen as our own “Oklahoma!” (1943). Like that landmark Rodgers-and-Hammerstein work, it presents two pairs of lovers in an environment of dramatic historic and social change--the forging of the American West in “Oklahoma’s’” case, the birth of a new nation in the Severino Reyes-Fulgencio Tolentino sarsuwela.

In the story of the primary lovers--the flush of their youth; the hurdles flung their way; the optimism and promise of their eventual union--is reflected nothing less than the dawn of the dewy, newly-minted land they are betting the rest of their lives on.

When the newlyweds Curly and Laurey ride off into the prairie horizon, and when the childhood sweethearts Tenyong and Julia overcome all odds to wed on the eve of the first Philippine Republic, they carry with them “plen’y of heart and plen’y of hope”--the roots and fibers of the brand-new citizenship they are planting in the brand-new nation they are helping to build.

To contemporize this venerable material, director Ricky Abad heightened the sense of young love at its core, framing and underlining it with imagery evocative of childhood play and infatuation.

He also allowed greater levity to creep into the interactions of its secondary characters. The broad humor of Lucas, for instance (Tito Cosejo Jr. alternating with AJ Constantino), was hip and urban, and often milked for all its worth, distorting the period atmosphere of the piece. Such indulgent hijinks threatened to rob this “Walang Sugat” of heft and becoming refinement.

Engaging show
But, apart from these gauche touches, the February run was a frisky, engaging show, with glorious music supplied by a full orchestra under Chino Toledo’s baton. Whatever tentative undercurrent it had, it took its cue perhaps from its newbie lead actor, who sang robustly but acted rather stiffly.

What a difference six months can make. That tyro actor, a UP Voice student named Arman Ferrer, loosened up considerably for the August restaging, as the young man Tenyong who grows up to become a revolutionary while fighting for the love of his second cousin and sweetheart, Julia.

The greater ease and confidence he now exhibited onstage translated into beautifully ardent, dashing singing--a rich, full-bodied and resonant sound that, in tandem with the lustrous soprano of Janine Santos’ Julia (also a UP Voice student), enabled this “Walang Sugat”--hokey moments and all--to raise the flag of beauty on the Irwin Theater stage with its heartfelt, youthful romanticism.

In Tenyong’s aria “Minamahal Kita nang Tunay,” when Ferrer sang the song’s thundering peak—“Hahamakin ko’ng kamatayan, mailigtas kita lamang!”—the moment felt transportive, the sarsuwela at its most achingly expressive.

After over 100 years, and sans the trendy rock-star microphones, “Walang Sugat” still quickened the pulse. There must be a lesson in there somewhere.

[Portions of the “Walang Sugat” review first appeared in this blog, here and here. Photos 3-4 by Rhei Javier.]

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