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Theater Year-Ender 2023: Highlights of the Philippine Stage

Theater Year-Ender 2023: Highlights of the Philippine Stage

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A look back at the year’s highlights before we say goodbye to 2023.

This year marked the return of Philippine theater as we mostly knew it before the pandemic: busy and with a lot of incredible shows on offer any given week of the year.

At TheaterFansManila.com, we’re obviously thrilled for this return to form where theater fans in Manila (and beyond) were given a smorgasbord of options to watch regardless of whichever type of show they love watching best.

As the year draws to a close, here are the theater highlights of 2023 that showed the Philippine theater industry is in full swing and at the top of its game:

Theater fans practically welcomed 2023 with what turned out to be one of the year’s finest shows in PETA’s “Walang Aray.” Directed by Ian Segarra, (with Rody Vera as playwright and Vince Lim as musical director) this laugh-out-loud comedy musical showed that you can make an excellent major production out of a farcical parody with all original music. With its strong and memorable ensemble members and lead performances that altered (in a good way) one’s experience of the show to an astounding degree, it was an experience to watch not just once, but at least thrice.

“The Reconciliation Dinner’s,” staging last May (marking a year after the 2022 presidential elections) unearthed real wounds–those buried or finally healing–but also showed its viewers with remarkable wit (playwright is Floy Quintos) and unflinching aplomb (director is Dexter M. Santos) that personal relationships are a lot more complex than political colors and divisive opinions. 

This year also saw numerous restagings, but a particularly exceptional and matured return to the stage is 9 Works Theatrical’s “Tick, Tick… BOOM!” (directed by Robbie Guevara) that reminded audiences why Jonathan Larson’s work is still worth revisiting. With its packed and detailed set (scenographer is Mio Infante) and its leading man Jef Flores, who memorably both portrayed an artist’s unique race against time and universal human anxiety, it felt like a fresh take on a well-worn show.

“The Last Five Years”, with Topper Fabregas’ perceptive direction of the love story with its unique use of chronology, is easily one of the year’s gems. Evocatively performed by real-life married couple Gab Pangilinan and Myke Salomon, it might also easily be one of the most beautifully sung shows all year.  

Lastly, the inimitable “Hamilton” finally graced our shores and lived up to its ravenous Filipino fans’ incredibly high expectations. It was the sort of show that really rewarded long-time fans and proved that its longevity, fame, and fandom isn’t a fluke–it really was that good.

Within and beyond these shows, noteworthy performances stood out. Firstly, we had incredible musical stage debuts in Alexa Ilacad in “Walang Aray” and Katrine Sunga in “Ang Huling El Bimbo” (AHEB). Ilacad showed a natural ebullience that drew everyone’s eye to her, injecting fresh verve that made her a compelling force on stage. This year’s run of AHEB is also its best iteration yet in no small part thanks to Sunga’s emotions as Older Joy that gave the weight the character’s story arc deserved.

Speaking of “Walang Aray,” the duo of Jon Abella and Shaira Opsimar punctuated the comedy with an emotional gravitas that made the show that much more enchanting and gripping. Abella, particularly, portrayed a multi-faceted Tenyong that showed these types of characters–Filipino heroes fighting for love and country–is his milieu.

If we witnessed notable debuts, we also saw exemplary reprisals. Antonette Go revisited Abigail Williams in “Ang Pag-Uusig” with layers that revealed not only her character’s notorious manipulations but also her fervid desires and vulnerabilities. Jef Flores in “Tick, Tick… Boom!” inhabited the character Jon with such maturity, depth, and nuance, that elevated the entire show.

Last but not least, leading ladies Gab Pangilinan (for “The Last Five Years”) and Felicity Kyle Napuli (for “Sandosenang Sapatos”) shone as the emotional cornerstones of their respective shows. Pangilinan gave a masterclass in singing truthful emotions from the exuberant joy of new love to the devastation of that same love lost. Napuli similarly gave a performance so emotionally stirring, it was what anyone could talk about as they left the theater. 

We theater fans enjoyed an embarrassment of riches this year and 2024 is shaping up to be at the very least just as exciting as 2023. To know what’s in store so far, check out our State of the Stage 2024 here!

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Editor-in-Chief for TheaterFansManila.com. Find her on LinkedIn.