BWW Review: ANG HULING EL BIMBO Version 2.0
Manila, Philippines--A prominent theater critic in New York once said in an interview that no producer has gone bankrupt betting on sentimentality. This statement is proven true here in Manila very recently with "Ang Huling El Bimbo" being restaged, barely six months after it closed its sold-out initial run. The show's main selling point: a throwback to some of the radio hits of the Eraserheads, one of the most celebrated Filipino alternative rock bands in the '90s.
As overwhelming the general response was of the original run, the reviews of the show were not unanimously superlative. So getting another shot at staging this show poses the most important question: is the show better this time around? My answer to that is a resounding yes!
As promised by the librettist (Dingdong Novenario) and dramaturg (Floy Quintos), some of the issues from last year's production were addressed. We may not remember every detail in the first production, but it is safe to say that the two most significant changes in this current version are the following: a deeper narrative of the female lead character (especially in Act 2) and a more tailored direction by Dexter Santos.
The character of Joy is now more central to the story; unlike in the first run where her death, revealed at the beginning of the show, just simply propels the reunion of the three male leads. Novenario, Quintos, and Santos made the right decision to allot most of Act 2 for the enriching of Joy's (Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo) story, which leads to the exposition of the injustices done by the main villain, Mr. Banlaoi (outstandingly portrayed by Jamie Wilson), not only to Joy but also to her Tiya Dely (played by Sheila Francisco). In fact, it certainly is more sensible to add, if not pull, the focus on Joy's character in Act 2 simply because the fate of her character is the most open-ended after that horrible incident, which transpires at the end of the first act. Although they are victims, too, the three male leads end up graduating on time, having no criminal liability. So their life's journey after graduation is the least of our concern.
While we're very much pleased with the changes injected by the creative team in this new version, we cannot help but also wonder what the show is truly about. Is this show about the friendship of the three men, whose lives were changed by a woman they met in their younger years? Or is this the story of a woman, whose tragedy ignites the dismantled bond between her three closest male friends?
Act 1 seems to take the first perspective for it practically aims to establish in almost every way (yet occasionally redundant) how the three boys, namely Hector (Bibo Reyes), Emman (Boo Gabunada), and Anthony (Phi Palmos) become best buds in college. If you come to think of it, except for that last scene, the story of their friendship would still be as magnetic even without Joy's (Gab Pangilinan) character.
In Act 2, darker and more serious themes are tackled by the play, with the three male leads, namely Hector (Gian Magdangal), Emman (OJ Mariano), and Anthony (Jon Santos) still feeling unhappy in spite of having landed their dream careers. But, in contrast with the first act, the individual glimpses of the current situations of these three men appear to be less stimulating as compared to that of Joy's reckless and unfortunate life. So Act 2 leans towards the second question.
Another facet about this show that remains to bother us a teeny bit is its deliberate choice to accommodate eight lead actors: four major roles in Act 1 and their character's respective adult counterparts in Act 2. Even with fairly good performances from all the actors playing leading or featured roles, having to give every actor a chance to shine (or sing a song) sometimes drags the show's plot.
Reyes, Gabunada, and Palmos, who play college students, have the most physically demanding roles (aside from the ensemble). Case in point, their stamina is put to the test in three standout scenes in Act 1. First, a sentimental rendition of the song "Minsan," complete with a well-executed summarization of every university tradition there is. Second, a cluttered but a highly energetic spin-off of the song "Tindahan ni Aling Nena." Lastly, a masterful rearrangement of the song "Pare Ko" (musical arrangement by Myke Salomon) while busting a soon-to-be-iconic military rifle drill exhibition (choreography by Santos).
Although Gabunada manages to keep his energy level steady throughout the show and Palmos delights audiences with his usual quirks, we are most enamored by Reyes' relaxed but nuanced portrayal of the well-off and carefree student, Hector, making the transition into his mid 30-year-old self, played by Magdangal, the most believable. This is particularly apparent in a scene where both the young and adult Hectors "visit" Joy's dead body at the morgue. This scene ends with Magdangal singing the first verses of the title song, "Ang Huling El Bimbo" as an elegy. When he sings the line "sa panaginip na lang pala kita maisasayaw..." Magdangal outpours his character's grief and disbelief, transforming the song into a gut-wrenching 11 o'clock number.
In this run, two sets of cast members alternately play the lead roles: Reb Atadero as young Hector, Nicco Manalo as young Emman, Lance Reblando as young Anthony, Tanya Manalang as young Joy, David Ezra as Hector, Myke Salomon as Emman, Rafa Siguion-Reyna as Anthony, and Carla Guevara-Laforteza as Joy. The creative team is also composed of Monino Duque (Lights Designer), Marlon Rivera (Costume Designer), Gino Gonzales (Scenic Designer), GA Fallarme (Projections Designer), and Rards Corpus (Sound Designer).
The show is produced by Full House Theater Company and Resorts World Manila, in cooperation with Ultimate Shows Inc. It runs until April 7, 2019, at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World Manila, Pasay City. Tickets are available at TicketWorld.com.ph.
Photos: Resorts World Manila