I Will: A most modern ‘millennial’ play

Ferdinand S. Topacio - The Philippine Star
I Will: A most modern �millennial� play
I Will: The Musical, the biography of well-known vlogger and erstwhile Vice-Presidential candidate Dr. Willie Ong, is led by international stage actor Gerald Santos.

MANILA, Philippines — It is to the great credit of director Antonino Rommel Ramilo that he was able to assemble a cast of superlative talents for his latest foray into stage, I Will: The Musical, the biography of well-known vlogger and erstwhile Vice-Presidential candidate Dr. Willie Ong. Led by international stage actor Gerald Santos, best known for playing Thuy in the United Kingdom version of Miss Saigon, the cast and ensemble exhibit such a veritable plethora of talent in singing, dancing and acting that I have seldom witnessed in my decades of going to the stage.

Coupled with original musical compositions — also by Antonino — that are inventive, innovative and engaging, the play thus becomes, at least, watchable.

Antonino is an old hand in the direction and production of live entertainment, having several Aliw Awards under his belt. He brings all of his vast experiences to bear in the play, as it starts off in medias res with the protagonist (played by Gerald) shown in the throes of depression. The way this was handled was very deft, as the director makes full use of current technology to open up with a mixed-media experience.

On stage, depression is represented by a human form in an all-black shroud with a white mask (skillfully and energetically played by veteran character actor Hutch Perales), reminiscent of the representation of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1958). His acting, and that opening scene itself, plus the haunting song Chaos that echoed on three huge LED video walls on stage, created a deep audio-visual impact.

Ong’s troubles with his parents (played by former matinee idol Roeder Camañag and old stage personality Ima Santos) who were constantly at odds with each other and who kept badgering him to go into business, his further struggles with depression, the bullying he received from his classmates, and his bouts with his stuttering, are all presented in a non-linear manner that was surprisingly easy to follow. It helped greatly that the writing was taut and the multi-media screen assisted the narrative in a manner that would not have been possible with traditional stage presentations. In all, it is a most modern “millennial” play.

Gerald, as a movie actor (he starred in two of my films) is competent, but nothing to write home about. It is on stage where he truly shines. Feeding off the energy of a mostly adoring audience, he navigated his character with superlative skill, in both acting and song. He is indeed one of our country’s hidden gems.

Gerald and Krizza Neri as Dr. Liza Ong share tender moments in the courtship scenes.

Krizza Neri (as Dr. Liza Ong, Dr. Willie’s wife) handled her song-and-dance numbers very well, making one wonder why she hasn’t gained more recognition. She, however, has a tendency to deliver her lines too fast, but otherwise her lighter take on her role provides functional foil to Gerald’s steady intensity.

Roeder and Ima were intense and persuasively depicted their roles, likewise handling the singing parts with aplomb. Special mention must be made of the ensemble, composed of 10 men and women of impressive talent, playing multiple roles with ease yet much conviction, and tackling the demanding music adroitly.

The highlight of the play — for many in the theater — would seem to be the kilig moments during the courtship of Drs. Willie and Liza, where tenderhearted ballads, soppy situations and torrid kissing all combine to make the audience react much like they would, had they been watching the latest romcom offering from one of the major movie studios.

The cast and ensemble of the musical exhibit such a plethora of talent in singing, dancing and acting.

It is just as well that there is immense talent and musical artistry on display during the play’s premiere, because the narrative is inherently a hard-sell, as far as the theater-going public is concerned. Dr. Ong may have several million followers online, but they are there for the sound medical advice he dispenses liberally, which accounts for his creditable showing during the last national polls. I doubt whether there is much interest in his personal life, his supposedly epic battle with depression and parental conflicts, his hard childhood, if only because this sort of account is generic, to say the least.

Antonino strives mightily to make it a story that many can relate to, especially as to the issue of mental health, but the highly personalized approach and the overtly religious tone of the dialogue and storytelling, thwart his efforts in that direction. While the play is well-acted, well-written and the songs well-made, it will take some will power for the average theatergoer to watch and stay.

(I Will: The Musical premiered last Oct. 14 at the Metropolitan Theater in Manila.)

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