REVIEW: “Ampalaya the Musical” – nothing to be bitter about
Ampalaya is bitter. Ampalaya = bitter.
The vegetable has been infamous because of its flavor – the reason that it is an acquired taste, and is not for everyone. It is for the same reason that the name of the vegetable has found its way to popular culture and is used to refer to people who are sourgraping – bitter about an experience that one seems to be unable to move on.
And it was the name of the new musical produced by Silliman University Cultural Affairs Committee that Manila was able to witness on July 15th. Based on the original story from a Children’s book “Ang Alamat ng Ampalaya,” wrttiten by Augie D. Rivera Jr, the musical tells the story of one of the least favorite vegetables of children and adults alike.
The musical opens to the telling of the harmonious lives of vegetables in the town of Sariwa. Everyone knows everybody: each is aware of the trait, special characteristic – even the nutritional value – of the other. One day, a new vegetable came into town: poor, boring Ampalaya, pale as a sheet, and without any hint of uniqueness. Witnessing the beauty and magnificence of the other vegetables made Ampalaya envious and indeed – bitter. Because of this, she devised a plan to acquire something from every single vegetable in town. While everyone was in slumber, Ampalaya carried on with her scheme and as everyone awoke, they realized their flavorlessness, their blandness, and their lack of special qualities. Ampalaya, on the other hand, emerged as the most beautiful, colorful, and appetizing vegetable out of everyone. Initially, she remained to be unrecognizable to everyone as Ampalaya, but as things slowly unfolded, the realization of her true identity was reached. What happened next was a truly unique and interesting take on how the vegetable came to be.
Watching the musical was indeed a delightful experience. It boasted of flavors that are reflective of the Filipino culture. The music was among one of the most noticeable of Filipino. Composed and conducted by Michael Dadap and Directed by Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, the music was played by Orchestra Sin Arco (also directed by Mathilda Limbaga Erojo). It boasted of folk music that makes one feel like being serenaded at open farm, munching on a feast of fresh salad and Filipino delicacies. It also helped move the plot along with the changes in music and tempo as the story unfolded. A favorite was the bass-centered piece that boomed of sinister plotting and mischievous playfulness. Another was the chant when Ubod Mansasaging was being summoned by the vegetables which sounded like the earth’s own heartbeat: both mystical and worldly.
The dialogue (libretto written by Michael Dadap and Patty Yusah) was written in mostly English combined with Filipino and Visayan, and was pleasantly creative and original. The script featured clever wordplay (I’m luya – luyal to a friend; fabulous, glamourous labanos; vegemopolitan magazine) and brilliant references to Filipino culture (punch like Manny Pacquiao).
The choreography (created by Angelo Sayson) was successful and featured movements that root from Filipino folk dance. The dance of the diwatas was most memorable, as they were in sync with the chant to the Ubod Mansasaging; they extended and flapped their wing-like appendage like mysterious bats in the night, on slow-motion.
The set and costume (designed by Lex Marcos and John Carlo Pagunaling respectively) were equally successful, and world-class. Everything complimented the story, including Ampalaya’s house with its slide that suggest child-like entrance to the world, as well as the removable clothes of the vegetables with cutesy, pyjama-like patterned sleepwear underneath.
The actors were among the most talented ones I have ever witnessed. Their diction and enunciation were near-neutral, and their singing voice was crystal. Each was able to give their vegetable characters an innocent humanity that made the story all the more convincing. Mary Anne Ortiz as Ampalaya was a force of nature – her shrieks were ear-splitting, her voice communicated her feelings clearly and her range as a singer was impressive. Another very memorable character was Luya, played by Herman Glenn Magdura. Although he was a supporting actor, his characterization as the loyal one was endearing, his voice was clear as a cloudless day, and his singing voice was comfortingly husky.
Overall, the play was more than successful – it has definitely nothing to be bitter about. It showcased a story which deeply ingrained the Filipino culture. It was a muted, resplendent display of the talent and beauty that are unique to Filipinos: we are playful, we give chance to others, we can be bitter, we are happy and we forgive.
While people may have qualms in watching a play based on a children’s story, and have cartoon-like characters singing and dancing, it still has its charm and universality that can speak its message clearly to adults: we feel too ordinary; we seek acceptance and approval from others; we strive to be special and we can become cutthroat about it. When we do step on others’ feet though, we feel a sense of remorse that we would wish can be erased by one simple sorry. Alas, adults are more complicated than that, and these stories, written by adults themselves, become a reflection of an innate wish for our mature lives to be less complicated, and go back to the child-like simplicity and concept of forgiveness and acceptance.
This is for adults and children. This should be brought to an international scale – if there’s any play in existence that could represent our culture best, in its simplicity and beauty, Ampalaya: The Musical is it.
Ampalaya: The Musical was originally shown at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium in Silliman University, Dumaguete from July 3 to 6, 2015, and was brought for a one-day show at the Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo of the Cultural Center of the Philippines on July 15, 2015.