A retelling of Edmond Rostand’s 19th century play “Cyrano de Bergerac” as a wartime sarswela set in Manila in the 1940s sounds like an interesting concept on the outset. It’s ambitious, at the very least. Pat Valera makes the attempt with “Mula sa Buwan”, but what transpires on stage is a lackluster echo of its source material and the particular era in Philippine history.
The set is a stage within a stage in the middle of 1940-something Manila. The country is in the brink of war, but in Mr. Valera’s story, the youth of Manila is mostly unencumbered, having the luxury to watch and stage sarswelas at their leisure.
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The first act is a boisterous romantic comedy, where Cyrano (Nicco Manalo), an ROTC officer and a poet, aids a handsome but not-too-bright new cadet Christian (Edward Benosa), in wooing Roxane (KL Dizon), a woman Cyrano himself is secretly in love with. Their little ruse proves successful, leading to Roxane and Christian’s shotgun wedding. The festivities abruptly end with an air raid, bringing these happy-go-lucky youth back to reality.
Nicco Manalo had a stage presence that made it easy to believe that his cadets looked to him with respect and admiration despite the comically long nose. He portrays a rightfully lively and playful Cyrano but also performs with an undercurrent of sadness and pining—a tinge of drama that helps build towards his character’s turn in the second act.
Act II picks up from the first act with a clunky ensemble performance that attempts to show the devastations of war. Now hiding in the woods with his friends, Cyrano writes to Roxane every day, signing the letters as Christian. Roxane finds where they are, prompted by all the letters she thought were written by her husband.
Tragedy strikes, yet Cyrano chooses not to tell Roxane about the truth. Fourteen years later, Roxane is by her husband’s grave. KL Dizon comes into her own as the story’s leading lady in the show’s dramatic moments. She performs a painful, soul-baring song of grief and longing, clutching the letters Roxane believes to be from Christian. Cyrano goes to her and an overlong exchange finally reveals the truth. A decade-long deception is glossed over and Roxane decides her true love is Cyrano, but there is no happiness even in her acceptance, as the story culminates in tragedy.
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Aside from costumes and hairstyles, the material and stodgy set design has done little to show that the first act is all happening in WWII instead of turn-of-the-century Philippines when sarswelas first emerged. The second act is bloated with wartime defiance and conflict that was barely present in the first act. While this shift in tone does situate the characters in their time period better, the story loses its romantic focus and the show, as a result, is nearly 3 hours long.
That said, the show’s music (by William Elvin Manzano) might be one of the most melodious out of recent original musicals. The kundiman numbers evoked plenty of romance, even whimsy. Where big songs with the entire ensemble were sometimes too chaotic, the show’s quieter moments (as with the earlier ballad “Ikaw”, and Roxane’s later elegy “Ang Sabi Nila”) were its more notable highlights.
Photography by Frida Tan