A stripped down Himala

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Aicelle Santos
Aicelle Santos plays Elsa in Himala: Isang Musikal

By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman

Himala: Isang Musikal
Presented by 9 Works Theatrical and The Sandbox Collective
Feb. 10 to March 4
Power MAC Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati, Makati City

SIMPLE and stripped of spectacle and choreography. This is how Himala: Isang Musikal’s director Ed Lacson, Jr. sees his version of the 2004 stage musical based on the classic Filipino movie, Himala.

“It is the simpler, distilled version. We opted not to have choreography here, which I know is a big risk because musicals have them. Ganun siya ka stripped down (that is how stripped down it is),” said Mr. Lacson, whose version will be on view from Feb. 10 to March 4 at the Power MAC Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati.

But while this musical is otherwise bare-bones, it will be bold when it comes to the raw emotions required to match the gravity of each scene and each pregnant pause.

The musical will also do away with the use of an orchestra and microphones. “I was so surprised that you can make a musical with just the piano and the voice, without lapel [mics]. No anything,” he added.

Well, except for the rain effect as the deus ex machina turn which is crucial in telling the story.

Himala: Isang Musikal is a production of 9 Works Theatrical — the theater group behind the musicals Newsies and A Christmas Carol — and The Sandbox Collective, which is back from a three-year hiatus after its successful show #NoFilter.

Himala (1982) has one of the best known lines in the history of Philippine cinema — “Walang himala! Ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao, nasa puso nating lahat!” (There are no miracles! The miracle is people’s hearts, in the hearts of all of us!) — uttered by Nora Aunor who played Elsa, the erstwhile mystic.

“It is not a conscious effort to make it different, but it is finding a different entry point as a director,” said Mr. Lacson of his version. “It’s for those who haven’t seen it.”

Written by Ricky Lee, the story is set in the drought-ridden agricultural town of Cupang. A glimmer of hope comes in the form of Elsa, who claims to have healing powers after seeing the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her miracles encourage the ill and the curious to visit the town, reviving its prospects. In the process, the community’s spiritual and moral foundations are tested. “This story would not exist anywhere else but the Philippines. It is so Filipino: the sensibility, the decision making, the situations,” said Mr. Lacson.

The musical’s libretto was co-written by Mr. Lee and musical director Vince de Jesus.

“Here is the challenge: Elsa’s silence. What was she thinking about? That was what I should write. The inner monologues make for a good musical [because] the words left unsaid give it a voice,” said Mr. De Jesus of the work he wrote 15 years ago. “The songs here did not happen in real life. I mean, they sang it, but did the other person hear the song? It just happened in his or her head.”

Mr. Lee wrote the original movie script back in 1976, but no producer would touch it because it was a tragedy and there was no love story. The country was in the grip of Ferdinand Marcos’ Martial Law when Mr. Lee wrote Himala — he had just been released from detention when he finished writing it. “My mood [that time] was about questioning everybody,” he said.

While Himala was a product of its time, its truths endures and its theme is timeless.

Asked if they saw any parallels between the original Martial Law context and today’s setting, the director said it was not his motive to do an agenda musical.

“I did not have any agenda. For me, it is just a vehicle for telling this story. This is the milieu used so we can see how the Filipinos [in the play] decide how their lives should be. It is relevant, but I do not need to have any agenda to tell its story. The politics will come to those who are watching it. The politics comes in you, who is deciding,” Mr. Lacson said.

He added: “We go down to the core, which is [about] coping, people trying to survive. It is powerful enough for you to invest in the story.”

Mr. De Jesus, who was just 15 years old when he first saw the original film, said, “Habang tumatanda ka, nag-iiba ang meaning (As you get older, its meaning changes). You have different concerns when you are 20 or 31, and I am 50 now. It becomes more relevant as you grow old. It has a life of its own. It has many layers: faith, faithlessness, fanaticism, how a good person can do wrong, how your [in your] effort to be loved you end up being broken. Ang dami (So much). Personal, familial, romantic, friendship.”

In this iteration, the role of Elsa will be played by Aicelle Santos (Rak of Aegis and Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag). She will be joined by Kakki Teodoro (Aurelio Sedisyoso) as Nimia, Elsa’s childhood friend who opens a cabaret in Cupang; Neomi Gonzales (Rak of Aegis and Katy!) as Chayong, Elsa’s right hand; Bituin Escalante (50 Shades the Musical) as Nanay Saling; and Sandino Martin (Ang Larawan: the Musical) as Pilo, Chayong’s former lover.