Near the climax of Dalanghita Productions’ KUNG PAANO AKO NAGING LEADING LADY The Musical, Kayumanggilas’ head scientist, Henyotic, tells Viva that breaking the rules is the only way to go. “Alam mo bang walang lugar sa mundong ito sa mga masunurin?” Oh well, it isn’t just Viva and Henyotic who break the rules here. There’s also Mely, and Leading Man, and Nena Babushka, and Madre de Dios…
…and Carlo Vergara. And Vincent de Jesus. And Chris Martinez.
Yes, dear jellicle readers. In Vergara’s newest superhero world, most have taken the unusual narrative route. Funny, but in a story which involves a housemaid, themes on disobedience rule the game. Vergara and his characters have surprisingly paved new ways at looking how a simple Virgin Labfest one-act play could be turned into an unconventional retelling of a superhero story. It’s quite revolutionary, surprisingly unconventional, however somewhat extensive to a fault.
First time musical theater director Chris Martinez orchestrates this new musical with unquestionable glee. Though at some point, one can still notice his filmmaking background, he somewhat manages to sustain the three-hour spectacle. Worthy to note is his focus on detail and symbols. Notice how he sprinkles the Kayumanggilas background with a jersey-wearing ensemble. If it’s not too-Pinoy, I don’t know what is. Consider the scene where Mely mournfully props herself on a two-wheel balancing scooter. There is an underlying theme of sad tragedy in there. Here, we see Mely balancing her priorities and obligations, both for her family and for her employers. It is pathetic, laughable, yet silently painful. In a generation where most of our theater directors simply create blocks so conviniently without purpose and direction, Martinez, as he consciously disobeys, batons triumphantly during those moments on stage.
LEADING LADY The Musical is a celebration of one great composer and lyricist that is Vincent de Jesus. Here, de Jesus wonderfully presents a repertoire of 24 songs that tighten the narrative and ties it up with a powerful play of varying emotions. His lyrics in Tatapusin Ko and Pretend It’s Her, are both poetic and emotionally rhapsodic. The show-stopping production number Kayumanggilas is something you should wait for. It is teasing, villainous, yet still close to home. Here, de Jesus revolutionarily transforms a supervillain song into something that is quite festive, magical and familiar, that one can’t be blamed if one roots for them. Worthy to note is his Kasalanan Ko. Writer-critic Ibarra Mateo describes it as an, “aria in an avalanche of songs and production numbers.” He further predicts that this song, “is destined to become one of Vincent de Jesus’ most memorable compositions.” I couldn’t agree more. I’ve seen the musical thrice, and this part of the show still makes me cry like a child.
Bituin Escalante who plays Mely is a natural. Her poignant interpretation of this central character is enough to engage an audience for the next three hours. As Mely, she is mild, engaging and wondrously controlled. Escalante shines with a discipline under the stage lights, that one can’t help not to root for her charm, and be one with her pains. Her Mely is such a treat on stage. Watch out for the scene where she enters on a two-wheel balancing scooter. Here, Escalante quietly commands the crowd for a laugh with only her presence and subtle energy. Worthy to mention, too, is her rendition of Kasalanan Ko. With Escalante, this song magically becomes a well-belted show-stopper that touches even those who aren’t in love (yet).
Frenchie Dy’s Mely, on the other hand, is relaxed, uncritical, yet justifiably so. As the older sister, she is charming, lovable, but wondrously spanking. Her Mely blends so gloriously in Vergara’s intricate plot, that one almost forgets that there’s a bigger twist in store. I particularly like the way Dy handles herself on stage, especially in most of her scenes with Fuerza Filipinas. Here, Dy mindfully tries to make herself invisible and unnoticed (kunsepto ng hiya kapag nariyan ang mga amo), but her size makes it quite impossible for her not to get attention. It is funny, character-driven and tragically methodical. Also, Dy’s Mely is quite embracing and familiar. We once had a friend like her, yes? someone who’s huggable, hale and hearty, and we have always wanted to be on her side. So while Escalante’s powerful control makes her Kasalanan Ko so magically moving, Dy smashes the song with an agonizing rendition. And with her being so familiar and so embracing, the moment transforms into a painful, piercing, and truthfully poignant aria. Here, Dy has proven how wonderful it is to be in love, and how excruciating it is to let it go.
The role of Viva is quite a challenge, but Kim Molina shines in every scene. In LEADING LADY The Musical, Vergara redraws Viva Moran from the formulaic villain to the unconventional central character. I don’t want to give away too much, but Molina’s attack on this, somewhat unprecedented, retelling makes the experience totally refreshing. Take for example the scene where Viva finally realizes that she was fooled and that she made a mistake. Molina’s remorse echoes across the stage. As Viva, Molina is a gem. Her energy surpasses the big numbers and her presence controls her scenes with undeniable command. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets an acting nomination for this role. Go see her for yourself, and see what I mean.
Markki Stroem as Leading Man is an eye-candy. A singing eye-candy on stage, as a matter of fact. We love Stroem in his most dashing, and adore him in his silences. He is the dandy boy-next-door that we girls always root for. He is the superhero newcomer, unwanting, detached and bored with his superhero life. We understand his grief, and we root for him when he falls in love with Mely. Hans Eckstein, on the other hand, offers a legitimate Leading Man. In him, we see a potentially strong superhero, however, unexcited to pursue the adventurous life. What I particularly like in Eckstein’s Leading Man is in him I see a lined, exhausted, and a humanized hero. Eckstein who has played the same role in the original one-act play, reprises his Leading Man with familiarity, and it’s a treat to see how he plays around with this same role in its musical adaptation.
So yes: LEADING LADY The Musical is quite disobedient in terms of form, direction and structure. Vergara stretches his original material to musical proportions and I admire the attempt to make it great. But this review cannot be complete without the criticism. Though the musical triumphs in its array of talents, visuals and performances, it pays quite dearly in its length (parang itong review lang na ‘to) and disturbing themes.
One reasonable point for argument is the writer’s choice to put the Kayumanggilas in a bad light. In a generation of X-Men, The Avengers, Fantastic Four and Super Friends, we have already been bombarded by post-colonial themes on heroism. Having someone like Vergara who once deconstructed such themes in his Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah graphic novels, made it quite refreshing. However, here, putting on spotlight a team of yet another English-speaking superheroes somewhat deconstructs what we have loved about Vergara in the first place. As much as I want to understand that there’s more into it, what I still see are the two opposing poles in the global triangle. The West and the East. And no matter how hard we try to explain the promise of heroic transformations for the common folks (Mely and Viva), structure would still go back to these two opposing social forces.
That is why I was hurt when the Kayumanggilas failed in their attempt to wave their own flag. Because I AM KAYUMANGGILAS! We all are. We are the brown-skinned, Tagalog-speaking, usually ungrammatical, lumaki-sa-isaw-at-balot heroes in our own rights. Their tragic end somewhat limits the promise of progressive involvement, and this is not what we need. In an era of passive (Facebook) activism, Kayumanggilas’ militant stand against the popular English-speaking superheroes, could be something worth looking into. But don’t kill them! It’s just like killing us, Filipinos. Slight lang naman.
Educate us. Don’t eradicate. Save us, if you think that’s what we need. But please don’t kill us.
This was probably brought about by the attempt to be unconventional. “Walang lugar sa mundong ito para sa mga masunurin,“ Henyotic said towards the end of the show’s rising action. Perhaps, Vergara and the creative team want disobey the usual genre structure and present a more experimental attack for its narrative. Though surprisingly refreshing, it is quite unprecedented to a fault. But that’s just probably me.
But there’s still beauty in its disobedience. In its rebellion, we see get to see other worlds and we try to embrace the consequences.
There, I said it na.
Dalanghita Production’s KUNG PAANO AKO NAGING LEADING LADY The Musical expands its original material to musical proportions in a 3-hour extravaganza about self-identity, heroism and argues the promise for the common man (or woman). Above all, it touches on the Filipino Family. Beautifully acted, spectacularly designed, and wonderfully choreographed, this new musical once again proves how great the Filipino Artist is.
Though I still find some of its themes somewhat disturbing, the Vergara-de Jesus-Martinez team proves that there’s a lot to celebrate in our local theater. Like its characters, this musical is proof how our artistry and talent have transformed so beautifully without sacrificing wit and the Filipino talent.
This first venture by Dalanghita Production may not be the musical that will end all musicals, but it will surely be something that will inspire us to run to the theater and watch and create and transform, and that makes it a lot better! In a generation of Avengers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men, LEADING LADY The Musical — in its disobedience against form and structure — has revolutionized a new look at the human spirit, our pains, our tragedies and our continuing redemption.
Let us be the Leading Ladies that we are!
Mabuhay ang mga Artista at mga Manunulat na Pilipino!!!
Photos by Mr. Erickson dela Cruz.