Review: One's Triumph Could be a Saving Grace for Many

A school tour of 'I Will, The Musical' may start next month.

By: Oct. 18, 2022
Review: One's Triumph Could be a Saving Grace for Many
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"I Will, the Musical" successfully premiered at the iconic Manila Metropolitan Theater stage on October 14, almost a year after it was filmed at the Music Museum and streamed online in 2021. The 2022 live theater event was well-attended--an assurance that the Philippine theater industry is slowly oiling up its rusty gears and can be picking up soon. The musical is based on the inspiring lives of Drs. Willie and Liza Ong, with a focus on Dr. Willie's mental health struggles, familial conflict, and his subsequent rise to being one of the most followed philanthropic doctors on social media.

Mental Health Awareness Message, School Tour

Staged in October, the musical echoes the United Nation's call for mental health awareness as a global priority. Given its message, the production could not have found a more suitable terra firma than the Manila MET. This art deco cultural facility was once stuck in the quagmire of political and proprietary shackles and impending decay.

Award-winning stage director Rommel Ramilo's indomitable spirit of writing and directing the original musical, despite the pandemic restrictions, fuels the two-hour show led by local and international theater star Gerald Santos. It was announced at the curtain call that Santos would be essaying again the role of Thuy in the Cameron Mackintosh mega-musical "Miss Saigon" in Denmark next year. The announcement was met with thunderous audience applause.

Before the curtain opening, in a speech delivered before the eager crowd, Ramilo hopes the musical would inspire a lot of people, especially [the] youth, that no matter how difficult [their] situation was, [they] would overcome. He further wishes that audiences may find faith in God through its message.

Dr. Ong prologued the gala with a brief recollection of how he struggled through depression and the subsequent bullying of his classmates. It was a reckoning that was complemented by tears and sniffles from the audience when the curtain finally fell at the end of the show.

To bring the message of hope to a wider audience, Ramilo excitedly announced the plan of a school tour, which may start next month, before Santos' departure for Denmark.

An Improved Retelling, Casting

The Manila MET live performance proved to be an innovative version with several conspicuous creative changes that significantly improved the overall pace. Ramilo and assistant director Paul Jake Paule, who was taken in after the streamed version, successfully introduced new stage elements while retaining some original cast members, including vocal powerhouse Ima Castro (Dr. Ong's mother).

Of the new elements, Hutch Perales' character as Dr. Ong's alter-ego is the most inventive and impactful. Between guttural and organic movements, spoken lines and gibberish, Perales provides the cohesive thread, sewing scenes that are in danger, at some points, of tearing at the seams. The musical's dark elements of anxiety and depression have never been this palpably terrifying, albeit occasionally amusing.

Krizza Neri, who plays Dr. Liza Ong, is another substantial addition. Neri is gifted with dramatic and tonal clarity making the role a strong force to reckon with. Her straightforward and nuanced delivery of lines elevates her Liza to a three-dimensional level, which, if not for her able delivery, would have been relegated to supporting role status. Neri is, without doubt, theater's discovery of the year.

The casting of Al Gatmaitan as Col. Ouano (Dr. Ong's uncle) is another commendable and wise decision. Gatmaitan's dramatic tenor has transformed the role into a bundle of empathy and relatability. His vocal quality perfectly matches what the part rightfully demands, and one can wonder why such a role is so short. Perhaps Ramilo can give him another song or maybe lengthen his part? With Gatmaitan's sincerity and talent, such a move will never go wrong.

It's a breeze to see Roeder Camañag perform again in a musical. Camañag (Dr. Ong's father) combines forces with Castro. Camañag's rendition of the 11 o'clock number "Our Father's Love" is heartbreaking and hopeful.

When Castro sings a number, expect her to bring the house down. Her thunderous voice ripping through all four walls of the theater could shame many Broadway and West End stars. In the hospital scene where her husband dies, she wails her woes sitting down, belting out monstrous notes after monstrous notes without the slightest hint of falter. Castro is a theater experience entirely on its own.

On the other hand, Santos' maturity as a performer is one you can happily take home with you. It is no ordinary feat to essay such a vast and demanding role that sees him as a stammering boy and a depression-plagued teen. Here, Santos's pipes and pathos are tested to maximum limits, but he triumphantly comes out of it. His finale number, the title track "I Will"--a beautifully crafted song that encapsulates the musical's theme--is something that will haunt you for days. Based on his gala performance, Santos is more than ready to take on the difficult role of Thuy in a much more challenging foreign language.

Workable Flaws

While the musical triumphs in its innovative live staging, the book desperately needs sincere and realistic dialogues. The disparity between purely English songs and Taglish dialogues needs some urgent reworking. Some songs in Act 2 need rearranging, while a couple need to go. Too many sad solo numbers bog the storytelling down and can be tedious for the audience to sit through.

Notwithstanding these somewhat workable flaws, the musical is stronger than ever, and Drs. Willie and Liza Ong's story begs to be told more than ever. Indeed, when told beautifully and sincerely, one's triumph could be a saving grace for many.

The sky is dark, it will turn bright

The night is here, the day's in sight

The storm is here, there'll soon be light

You feel so wrong, it will be alright.

Photo: Antolin So/Kuya So Blog