Superhero Soap Opera
In an alternate universe, superheroes roam the streets of Manila. They protect citizens against everything- from petty criminals to alien attacks. Carlo Vergara’s Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady feature beings with powers similarly encountered in other superhero stories. Like the superheroes that we know, these ones have faults too, including being too busy to pick up after themselves.
Enter Mely (Bituin Escalante). Hers is a familiar story: unmarried 30-something woman from an impoverished background with her whole family depending on her. She refers to her life as “buhay basahan” yet, as with every Filipina in a similar situation, she sucks it up and looks for a job. With only her work ethic as a bankable qualification, she finds employment as Puwersa Pilipinas’s hired help. In contrast, Mely’s sister Viva (Kim Molina) is young and gullible. She is unburdened by any need to work, apply herself, or alter her circumstances in any way. This changes when an attractive man entices her to come and work for the “government”.
The relationship between the two sisters is complicated. Neither feels that what they offer is enough. There is mention of previous romantic entanglements that contributed to this strain. Their differences and insecurities act as catalysts setting the story of Leading Lady in motion. The show goes back and forth, alternately focusing on Mely’s hard knock life with the superheroes and Viva’s training with the government agency that turns out to be a band of wannabe super villains.
The story is replete with themes and events that make it seem like a soap opera, but in the best sense. And no soap opera is complete without romance. Leading Man (Markki Stroem) and Mely meet and the rest of the world stops with literally only the two of them left spinning. The chemistry between Ms. Escalante and her love interest is one that works. Stroem certainly has a charm that sends women (and some men) swooning in their seats. They will leave you in awe, in stitches, and most importantly, invested in how it will turn out.
The creative and artistic team mentioned that the company worked hard to make sure no actor was left behind, and it showed. Each member of the massive cast held their own and gave each of their characters a presence that sticks with the audiences. One of the show’s strengths is the writing, and it is made even better by the capable cast.
Ms. Escalante simply draws your eye on stage. She is funny, touching, relatable, and sympathetic. You root for her from start to finish, a quality only the best-written and best-acted leading characters possess. Kim Molina, too, carries her role well. She has impeccable comedic timing, yet ably performs all of the emotions Viva goes through. Their characters are the heart of the show, and their performances, its soul.
One of the show’s highlights is Nar Cabico playing super villain, Senyor Blanko. He is maniacal, ridiculous, and absolutely hilarious. With much of the show’s humor resting on his unique brand of English and the manner of how he speaks it, he gives a mastered performance. He is a worthy opponent to the superheroes led by no less than Ms. Menchu Lauchenco-Yulo herself as Madre De Dios. The antics of Kakki Teodoro as the robot, and Chesko Rodriguez as Popoy Pusakal have also made them crowd favorites.
This is a raucously fun show, but it is weighted with purpose. It is satirical. Right away you see the juxtaposition of the superhero foreigners versus the Filipino villains. The piece is critical of our preference—or even reverence—of foreign sensibilities, and language is powerfully used to drive this point home.
While it’s not entirely clear that the takeaway shouldn’t be that Filipinos or the Filipino government are the bad guys while the foreigners (or, at least, the mestizo-Ingleseros) are the good guys, the real focus is the ordinary people. The likes of Mely and Viva only have themselves and their good intentions to offer, and that is enough.
Other strong parts of the show are the technical aspects. Theatrical productions don’t have CGI and other cinematic tricks to depict superpowers, but they do have lighting (by John Batalla) and inventive set design (by Tuxqs Rutaquio). In addition, the choreography (by Nancy Crowe) for dance and fight sequences lend themselves to create a dynamic and enthralling theater experience.
Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady is easily one of this year’s strongest musicals. The music is beautiful, the songs are catchy, and the story is about Filipinos for Filipinos. Above everything else, it is an excellent example of how original Filipino musicals are right up there with the best of them. It’s definitely one show you can’t miss!
CREATED and WRITTEN by Carlo Vergara; DIRECTED by Chris Martinez; LYRICIST, COMPOSER, MUSICAL DIRECTOR Vincent de Jesus. STARRING Menchu Lauchengco Yulo, Bituin Escalante, Frenchie Dy, Kim Molina, Natasha Cabrera, Markki Stroem, Hans Eckstein, May Bayot, Astarte Abraham, Giannina Ocampo, Caisa Borromeo, Chesko Rodriguez, Jeff Flores, Nar Cabico, Domi Espejo, Red Nuestro, Red Concepcion, Elliot Eustacio, Vince Lim, Mikoy Morales. This show runs from May 7 to June 7 (Thursdays to Sundays) at the PETA Theater Center.