REVIEW: A tale of three ‘Walang Aray’s
It’s the unique magic of theater that you’re never really watching the exact same thing when you catch the same show multiple times. There’s always something different, especially if it’s one of PETA’s broad comedies where improv and adlibs are baked into a formula that brought audiences winning shows like Rak of Aegis.
But what’s interesting in how PETA does it–as you’ll see in this long run of Walang Aray–is that they serve up different leads to tell the same story. They did it with Rak, where one run would have multiple pairs of leads alternating. And like Rak, your experience of Walang Aray will hinge on who you catch at the helm when you go see it.
Before I delve into all the different Julias and all the different Tenyongs and how these three pairs of co-stars made for stunningly unique experiences every time, it bears mentioning that Walang Aray is a spoof, a farce of Severino Reyes’ turn-of-the-century Walang Sugat sarswela about a pair of young lovers at a time of great political and cultural turmoil: the Philippine revolution.
Directed by Ian Segarra and written by Rody Vera with music (and musical direction) by Vince Lim–the strength of what they’ve created lived and died by how well the actors who played Julia and Tenyong did even regardless of how well PETA’s ever-reliable ensemble does, and how fun its staging or visual elements.
Heavy is the head, as they say, and some heads were far better equipped to bear this would-be PETA blockbuster.
Heavy on ‘star,’ light on ‘magic’
The big buzz about this production was casting young celebrities Alexa Ilacad as Julia and KD Estrada as Tenyong in the lead roles. They were my first initiation to Walang Aray myself at opening night. From the moment they appeared on stage, the audience needed no convincing. Whatever it was they were putting down, a titillated crowd gobbled it up.
Everyone had a riotous time, waiting and whooping and shrieking every time the two stars nearly kiss. It was a blast being in a crowd that was having a blast, even though I came away from that first viewing as though I had spent the last two and half hours escaping to a rom-com that was just pleasant enough.
It was a farce, afterall. And sometimes comedy and kilig are worthy pursuits in themselves when it comes to entertainment. When it’s Ilacad and Estrada on the dock, the period is mere setting, the Philippine Revolution is mere detail, the relentless gags are just gags–all background to prop up this budding love team as they show off that they’re ‘triple threat’ performers.
This is not to say that Ilacad is not a bonafide superstar because it was right away clear that she is. She has charm coming out of her pores, a singing voice that turn every number into showstoppers, and comedic chops that make you feel like she’s very much at home on that stage.
She is so magnetic that everything and everyone else seems dimmed somehow. And while an excess of charisma is no bad thing to have, there’s not much variation in her emotions throughout Julia’s journey. From start to finish she seemed to be having a whale of a time, and the effect is that Walang Aray is truly painless. Stakeless. Lighthearted fare of no impact nor memorability outside of her own comparably impressive stage debut.
This is not just Julia’s show but it might as well have been because her co-lead, Estrada, was so miscast and generally seemed unaware that he is meant to be storyteller, not just the singer/dancer/actor/kilig extractor called of him depending on the scene. Always lost in the shuffle of a far abler ensemble, you do not get the sense at all that Walang Aray is his story too.
Alternating with Ilacad and Estrada is Marynor Madamesila and Gio Gahol. With them filling Julia and Tenyong’s shoes, you get a far better sense of what Walang Aray is supposed to be. Still lighthearted fare, still a farce, but just because a show is lighthearted and farcical doesn’t mean it had free reign to go off the rails.
It’s a far more even production, a far more precise comedy. It becomes a study of form, of the finesse it requires to pull off slapstick. You finally see Production Designer Julio Garcia’s carnaval-cabaret stage and Jaylo Conanan’s delightful–almost Ozian–costume designs. Most importantly, you finally see how Segarra takes Vera’s words and Lim’s music to craft a wholly joyful and even clever affair.
You also get to appreciate not just the first-rate performances of the leads, but the equally first-rate performances of the show’s ensemble– namely Gie Onida (as Don Tadeo), Neomi Gonzales (as Juana), Kiki Baento (as Monica), Carlon Josol Motobato (as Lucas), and Johnnie Moran (as Padre Alfaro)–who all deliver masterclasses in comedy for this show.
Madamesila’s Julia is quick-witted and sharp. You get a solid sense of her connection with the other characters and the many other threads of the plot that she has to wrangle. Her rapport with Gonzales, who plays her mom, feels genuine and real. When the plot calls for her to be attracted to another suitor, you believe her.
Walang Aray can feel like a show that’s all levity, leaving audiences with the wrong impression that it’s just one of those shows to make you laugh in the moment and then send you off on your merry way. Fortunately, if one is lucky to catch Gio Gahol as Tenyong, he’ll serve up some much-needed gravity.
Gahol manages to find dramatic beats and hit ‘em, adding just enough stakes to add some variety to the onslaught of jokes after jokes. If Walang Aray is a caramel of sickly-sweet proportions, Gahol knows just how much salt to sprinkle, and it made all the difference.
When it’s Madamesila and Gahol on stage, the show is still a riot, but now you laugh because the staging calls for laughter, you’re excited and impressed because the direction is exciting and impressive, you feel kilig because their love story has earned your investment. With them, Walang Aray is a far more polished thing–a solid dependable broad comedy musical PETA can trust will bring in the audience even without a ‘celebrity’ cast.
Viva la revolucion
And then there’s Shaira Opsimar and Jon Abella, the third pair of alternates that manage to morph an already near-pristine comedy musical into an altogether different thing: a weightier, more emotional trip to this turn-of-the-century Manila. You finally get why the show is saying ‘tumindig’ because buried (yet excavated by Opsimar and Abella) underneath this side-splitter of a musical is a fight. They’re fighting for something, fighting against something.
This Walang Aray feels like the PETA fulfilling their mandate of social commentary and education. Like before, you’re shown that the friars are torturous letches but now you see that their actions have impact. Walang Aray isn’t painless at all. There’s real stakes even in this farce, superbly conveyed by Abella who is able to tell an entire arc of Tenyong’s story just by the emotions on his face.
His journey from hapless loverboy to a ‘kap’ in his katipunero faction happens quickly–in the span of a song–but he’s able to sell that song so that by the end of the first act, even in this largely comedic show, you get that Walang Aray is trying to tell you something very important: that love of country (a complicated thing these days) makes love of everything else possible. Without it, all other pursuits seem incomplete or not enough.
This was the version of Walang Aray that revealed to me the cleverness of Rody Vera’s adaptation, the heart and memorability of Vince Lim’s music. The emotionality of both Abella and Opsimar (even when the narrative itself doesn’t get that deep, I have to admit) does add to the romance of Julia and Tenyong’s story. They’re not just two teens enjoying the kilig of firsts, but young lovers whose parting for a bigger cause is a devastating choice for both of them.
Don’t get me wrong. The comedy is still there, yes, by the bucketful–but so are other emotions that make any trip to the theater a meaty and cathartic one.
By and large, PETA’s Walang Aray has the markings of what they hope it would be: their next big musical. It’s hilarious, romantic, whip-smart and an absolute joy to watch. In the right hands, you just might find it moving, or even polished to near perfection.
Tickets: P1200 - P2500 Show Dates: Feb 17 - May 14 2023 Venue: PETA Theater, Quezon City Running Time: 2.5 hours (including a 10-minute intermission) Credits: Rody Vera (Playwright & Librettist), Ian Segarra (Director), Vince Lim (Music & Additional Lyrics, Musical Direction, And Sound Design), Gio Gahol (Choreography), Julio Garcia (Production Design), Jaylo Conanan (Costume Design), David Esguerra (Lights Design), Happy "Haps" Constantino (Sound Design), Ayla Garcia (Voice Coach) Cast: Jon Abella, KD Estrada, Gio Gahol, Alexa Ilacad, Marynor Madamesila, Shaira Opsimar, Jarred Jaicten, Bene Manaois, Kiki Baento, Carlon Josol Matobato, Gie Onida, Norbs Portales, Neomi Gonzales, Johnnie Moran, Yeyin De La Cruz, Ayla Garcia, Ada Tayao, Tom Bienvenida, Donn Boco, Gerard Dy, Gardo Exconde, Csairus Habla Company: Philippine Educational Theater Association