By Giselle P. Kasilag Contributor
Ang Huling El Bimbo
By Dingdong Novenario
Directed by Dexter Santos
Full House Theater Company
Performances until April 7
Newport Performing Arts Theater,
Resorts World Manila, Pasay City
SEVEN YEARS after the revolution, a nation once filled with hope but now confronted with the enormity of the task to rebuild a broken country woke up to the unique sound of the Eraserheads. The rock band, whose members came from the University of the Philippines, debuted Ultraelectromagneticpop! in 1993. This album would be the first of over a dozen. It also led to Ang Huling El Bimbo — a musical inspired by the music of arguably the most popular Filipino band of the ’90s.
Now on its second staging at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World Manila (RWM), this 1,500-seat auditorium saw a first run of 30 sold-out shows. RWM President Kingson Sian said that about 50,000 people saw those performances and clamored for more. A re-staging was inevitable.
But Full House Theater Company (which mounted the show for RWM) did not rest on its laurels. That gap between the last show in September 2018 to the first show of the re-staging in March 2019 was fully utilized to tweak the already successful material. The result was a stronger narrative and better performances.
The curtain rises to a crime scene. Joy (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) — a supposed drug courier on the watch list of the Philippine National Police — is dead and the last calls made on her cellphone were to three respected and successful men. Eman (OJ Mariano) is a government worker; Anthony (Jon Santos) is a businessman; and Hector (Gian Magdangal) is a film/television director.
Summoned to the police station to establish their innocence or guilt, the three men are reunited for the first time since they left college. Apparently, they were schoolmates and they knew the victim though they are all reluctant to admit to the connection.
Flashback to their younger selves as dorm mates in the State University where freshmen Hector (Bibo Reyes), Emman (Boo Gabunada), and Anthony (Phi Palmos) meet for the first time. Innocent and hopeful, the world is theirs for the taking.
They become friends with Joy (Gab Pangilinan), an out-of-school youth who sells turon (banana fritters) while her aunt runs a small eatery on campus. It is a mutually beneficial relationship with the kids inspiring each other to do better to achieve their dreams. Eventually, a romantic relationship develops between Hector and Joy.
But while it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times. Sheltered in the campus, the violence of the real world soon catches up with them. On the eve of their graduation, all their dreams crash before their eyes. Unable to cope, the fall-out would set the stage for the death that opened the show.
Without giving too much away, it was the tweak made in this pivotal scene that truly strengthened the narrative. A decision made by Hector — rather than Joy which was the case in the first run — allowed the audience to make sense of the characters’ reactions and how it affected their adult selves.
Much credit must be given to Dingdong Novenario and Floy Quintos for piecing together a cohesive and emotionally piercing script from hundreds of beloved Eraserheads pieces. They resisted the urge to pack in all the songs, selecting instead only those that would truly push the narrative forward. They did not bind themselves to the original intentions of the songs but used them as tools at their disposal. The result is a very fresh take on what was the soundtrack of an entire generation.
A favorite was the Citizens Military Training scene that made use of a version of “Pare Ko” that very few would imagine possible. It was creative yet nostalgic — the running thread of this production.
“Tikman ang Langit” was another wonderfully utilized piece of music. Originally used as a commercial for a burger joint, the song was used to show the move from a time of innocence to the degradation of values and morals. The same piece sung by different characters created entire scenes that are polar opposites in nature. It was a genius treatment of material.
With the tweaks, the production finally understood that the adult characters — all with impressive theater credentials — were not the stars of the show. The younger selves were. And Gab Pangilinan’s Joy was the most central character of them all. The singing was nuanced and her voice was more than a match for the challenge. Combine that with her acting and the result was a character that the audience immediately felt relatable and comfortable. She grew into her character, credibly taking the audience from childhood to the challenges of adulthood.
There was real chemistry between her and the three boys. And they matched Pangilinan’s energy every step of the way. Their characters were as distinctive as their voices. But they were clearly listening to each other, thus, the blending of voices was wonderful to the ears.
The same was true for the rest of the cast. In the scenes where everyone was singing, one could still distinguish the voices of the lead characters and appreciate the harmonies.
The one sore point is the singing voice of Jon Santos. While a competent actor, his singing voice couldn’t quite match the strength and sensitivity of his colleagues’. When Magdangal and Mariano would be soaring, Santos could barely hold the note.
The unsung hero of the production, however, was Jamie Wilson as Banlaoi — a man who started out as a rough and tough but doting family friend of Joy’s who was also the university’s CMT commander. He had the most fully realized character from the beginning, and every movement, every glance, every stress on the words carried meaning. As he moved from likable tough guy to sleazy scum, the audience easily accepted the character’s progression because of Wilson’s credible performance.
Finally, the other important tweak was the ending. It no longer forced a tidy resolution to the messy lives of the four leads. While there was personal closure, life rarely gives people a definitive resolution to complex issues. That the creative minds behind the production chose to stop and walk away from a neatly packaged ending was a gamble that truly paid off.
Ang Huling El Bimbo is a wonderful and painful reminder of where we came from and how we found ourselves in our current mess. And it sends an urgent message: through thick or thin, we are all on the same boat, and we are all in this together.
Tickets to Eng Huling El Bimbo are availabel at TicketWorld (www.ticketworld.com.ph).