A theatrical miracle

Font Size

By Joseph L. Garcia, Reporter

Theater Review
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

If Superstar Nora Aunor gives it a standing ovation, by all means, you get up and clap.

9 Works Theatrical and The Sandbox Collective’s press preview of Himala earlier this month was graced with the presence of Nora Aunor herself, along with the film and the musical’s writer, Ricky Lee. The original musical’s cast members from 2003 were also present.

Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982), acclaimed as one of the best films to come from this country and this region, tells the story of a village girl named Elsa in a town called Cupang, which is torn apart by a drought believed to have been brought by an old curse. Elsa’s healing powers, which she and her disciples believe come from the Virgin Mary, saves the town — but will her powers be enough to save the townsfolk from themselves?

A leitmotif from the film is the sound of the howling wind, supposed to show the town’s emptiness and barren state. This is echoed in the musical — directed by Ed Lacson, Jr. — by the humming of the chorus at the musical’s introduction, setting the tone for a musical that is truly haunting, and stunning. The production did away with a full orchestra, depending instead on a single piano, making the music simultaneously epic and intimate.

The townspeople of cursed Cupang, serving as the chorus, are given a dimension not immediately evident in the film. In hindsight, the musical adds richness and detail to the film’s story, and is a masterpiece itself and not merely a sequel or an accompanying piece. For example, in making the townspeople a collective force, their role as a character by themselves is pushed to the fore: in their charivari, sometimes reverential, sometimes violent, their needs are given a greater urgency.

Meanwhile, this writer could not think of a better venue for the musical than the one in Circuit Makati. The small theater immerses the audience, willingly or not, making one feel like a true participant in Elsa’s miracles, aided as well by the immersive set that has houses and huts built around the audience, so to your right, or to your left, a scene may well be unfolding.

A song that stands out, appearing in the first act, is “Gawin Mo Aking Sining,” an entreaty from Elsa (played by Aicelle Santos) to a town guest, filmmaker Orly (played by David Ezra). While she is dressed by her attendants, Elsa makes a statement about grandiose self-delusion, or else a genuine desire to be: not just for herself, but for her world. Elsa is robed by her attendants while being filmed by Orly, and as she is dressed, it seems as if she’s building herself up in her mind, for her own good and for the consumption of others.

Elsa’s voice stands out throughout for having a certain purity, unlike the voices that surround her: for example, that of her adoptive mother Saling (Bituin Escalante) which has a power seeking to impose its will. Elsa’s voice, however, has a pop star’s vibrato, reflecting her star quality in the town. The voice of Chayong (Neomi Gonzales), Elsa’s hapless handmaiden and best friend, has a conventional operatic cleanliness, making her sound saintlier than St. Elsa but decidedly second-fiddle (at least in the musical: in real life these women could give each other a run for their money).

While musical and technical mastery can take a backseat over heart in some productions, it is a testament to Himala’s power that both take equal precedence — at least for this writer who is easily impressed by clever use of lighting, and the rain sequence employing real water that leaves the chorus horribly but joyfully drenched.

The second act is by turns stomach-turning and heart-wrenching, where a throb of guilt and pain is felt throughout each pained word; each anguished grimace. I could go on, but if you’re watching the musical, chances are you’ve seen the movie, and you probably know what happens next, and how it ends. Let me tell you though, that in the tight-lipped audience that evening, this reporter counted at least three people with tears in their eyes.

After the musical, Ms. Aunor was brought to the stage to meet the other Elsa. When asked by BusinessWorld if she liked it, she said, “Oo naman (Of course).”

Tickets to Himala: Isang Musikal are available through TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph).