It takes some out-of-the-box thinking to have a character suddenly say “surely” to tee up a song originally called “Shirley”, but that’s the kind of creative gymnastics that inevitably happen when you try to weave unconnected songs into one narrative. And besides, the very point of a jukebox musical is to hear the hits. That’s certainly the main draw of “Ang Huling El Bimbo”, Full House Theater’s attempt to translate hit 90s band Eraserheads’ repertoire into a major musical.
Playing to an always packed theater at Resorts World Manila, the clamor for Eraserheads to get its own ‘Rak of Aegis’ treatment was plain. And the show gives the fans what they paid for: a show chock-full of songs, familiar or otherwise–appeasing the casual listeners and the die-hards alike. Musical director Myke Salomon shows his mastery in this regard, with the most popular hits transformed in unexpected ways. In this incarnation, “With a Smile” is a solemn hymn, and “Pare Ko” is an ROTC chant. Salomon’s arrangements surprise, encouraging you to pay attention instead of getting lost in the familiarity of the tunes.
The music was the material’s saving grace, as Dingdong Novenario’s book zigzag between two timelines presented nonlinearly. The crux of it is the story of the eponymous song: a man reminiscing over a lost love after hearing of her untimely death. Novenario adapts the very same point of view. The men are front-and-center in this musical with a woman’s abuse and tragedies only mere fodder for men to explore their feelings.
Unlike the song, the musical features 3 male friends with broad strokes characterizations. Hector (Gian Magdangal), with his hoodie and headphones, is a broody artist type. Emman (OJ Mariano) is a regular employee caught up in the daily grind, and Anthony (Jon Santos) is a closeted gay man. The characters don’t go much deeper than this (their younger counterparts, Reb Atadero, Boo Gabunada, and Topper Fabregas, tow the same line) with the story leaning on perpetuated stereotypes to fill in gaps.
They have been inexplicably summoned to a police station, and after curt hellos, the story flash back to the very beginning: three boys, different in their way, becoming friends. Director Dexter Santos treats us to frequent montages to speed things along. They happen upon Joy (Tanya Manalang), whose first purpose on stage is to be the woman who loves more than she is loved. She would eventually be rejected by her boyfriend, but our 3 leads take her in as part of their cozy foursome. In one scene, she is literally defined only by who she is in relation to the other 3–one’s sister, another’s best friend, and the third’s love interest.
Poor Joy is put through the ringer in the musical’s hands. Just as Santos and Novenario framed the story in the male point of view to earn that dramatic rendition of “Ang Huling El Bimbo” for the finale, Joy had to go through all the misfortune the object of the song went through, and then some.
Act one’s ends with a horrific twist with the second act exploring the aftermath. Joy’s life was understandably derailed, and it was a straight path down to that dark sidestreet for her. It’s as though she was the musical’s virgin sacrifice to fulfill the eponymous song’s narrative.
The musical also showed how the 3 other men’s lives turned out, with Santos’ decidedly dark tone giving equal weight to unequal outcomes. Anthony never came out, and is in an unhappy marriage, but the audience is also subjected to Emman’s middle class woes and Hector–well, he was cursed with the inability to commit to one woman.
There’s still a lot to like in this production. Reb Atadero particularly embodied the boyish charm that evoke the carefree early days of Eraserheads’ music about young love and heartbreak. Sheila Francisco, as Joy’s aunt Toyang, acted with a gravitas that was a league of her own. Manalang and Fabregas were also enjoyable in their roles, and their connection is the most believable of the lot.
Santos assembled a strong ensemble and created choreography that did not allow themselves to be dwarfed a stage that was simply too big. While projections as background left much to be desired, production designer Gino Gonzales brought out set pieces that enthralled in their detail and movement on stage.
For those looking to experience their favorite tunes in a new way, Ang Huling El Bimbo is worth a trip to the theater.