Big stars make splashy theater debut in Contra Mundum

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
Big stars make splashy theater debut in Contra Mundum
Jericho Rosales as Tony Javier with Karylle as Paula Marasigan in Act II of Contra Mundum: The All-star Concert of Ang Larawan.

MANILA, Philippines — Contra Mundum: The All-star Concert of Ang Larawan became the springboard for big-name television and movie stars Jericho Rosales, Paulo Avelino and Bea Alonzo to finally dip their hands into the world of theater.

Recently held at the newly-renovated Metropolitan Theater in Manila, the three-act musical based on National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin’s stage play, Ang Larawan (A Portrait of the Artist as Filipino), was a veritable gathering of stage veterans and esteemed performers. But the star power lent to the show by the newbies surprised even National Artist for Music Ryan “Mr. C” Cayabyab, who served as musical director.

In an interview with The STAR during Contra Mundum’s after-show party, Mr. C said, “Alam niyo nakakagulat kasi umo-o itong mga big-name stars kasi di ba papaano sila… wala naman kinikita dito. Pero nga, sabi nila ‘di bale na, may kikitain kami sa labas.”

“Even then, they came, they went through school not once, twice, but thrice a week. That’s why if you noticed, ang gagaling nila. ‘Di mo akalain, kakanta sila ng ganun,” he added, referring to The Music School of Ryan Cayabyab run by his wife, Emmy, or Mrs. C to the cast.

“It’s a brilliant idea (to have them) and I think it was the material that attracted them. Parang hindi siya basta-basta kaya nag-oo sila because they understood that it was an important production.”

Paulo Avelino reprises the role of Tony Javier with Rachel Alejandro playing Paula Marasigan in Act III of the musical.

Set in pre-World War II Manila, the production tells the story of two financially-struggling and unmarried sisters (Candida and Paula Marasigan) who agonize over whether or not to sell their recluse father’s painting and last masterpiece, and in the process, encounter betrayal.

In separate interviews, the first-timers shared what made them accept this theater gig despite doing other projects.

For Bea, who has begun filming the series Love Before Sunrise, her performance ticked off several items from her bucket list, including doing her first musical and performing at the Metropolitan Theater. Bea played the sophisticated Elsa Montes, who “brought conga to Manila.”

“This is my first ever. I’ve also never been given the chance on the variety-show stage. Definitely, it’s totally different but I said yes to it because I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and to get my feet wet in the theater,” she said.

She recalled how she got the part: “It’s weird because I was just talking to my manager, Shirley Kuan, and I said I wanted to do something different — to refresh my soul, my passion for this industry, something like a musical. Matagal ko ng pangarap mag-teatro.

“So, I said, can you make that happen for me? After 30 minutes, she called me back and said, I have a role for you? Sabi ko, kelan to? ‘Sa May na.’ And this was only a month before! I said kaya ko ba ‘to?’ Sabi niya, yes, it’s just a cameo.”

Bea, nevertheless, treated it like a major role, creating a detailed character to her fashion and styling, which exuded Hollywood glam.

“I was thinking, maybe when she was young, she was sent to the States by her rich parents and then she came back to the Philippines on the brink of World War II,” she said.

“I thought because she was very sheltered, namulat lang siya sa mundo sa kasosyalan and abundance. She’s oblivious, kahit sa painting, parang na-relate pa niya to something that is so surface-level, which is just fashion. I really want to portray someone who also has maybe deep pains from her childhood, but to cover that up, she’s somebody shallow. I feel like it’s her defense mechanism.”

Jericho, on the other hand, considered Contra Mundum as his official acting comeback after “four years of quietness as well as traveling and working on other stuff.” He played Tony Javier, a vaudeville piano player who tried to seduce Paula, in Act 2.

Bea Alonzo (center) as Elsa Montes — the woman who brought conga to Manila — with co-actors (from left) Markki Stroem, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Mitch Valdez and Kakki Teodoro.

“(Why did I say yes?) Why not? Like (it’s because of) all the National Artists, the names, the importance of this project. To highlight that as a Filipino, why not? Plus, I’ve been dying to do theater for the longest time. Because I would never have a chance if I’m doing TV,” Jericho said.

“It’s a conscious effort — a promise to myself to do the things that excite me, scare me and help me grow.”

He further described Contra Mundum as a “really, really good takeoff point” before he would start filming for two international projects — the prison drama Sellblock and the OTJ prequel.

“I’m happy I did this. I also came back from New York, and I auditioned, you know, for Broadway, plays, and stuff. I really just did stuff that really made me feel alive again because I was really looking for that spark again. And I found it in the things that I loved to do — film and stage.”

Jericho, nevertheless, admitted he was a bundle of nerves on stage. “Imagine you have the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra, you have Ryan Cayabyab in front of you, you have lines, you have the audience, 1,000 people, watching you live, and you’re in the Met. You can’t avoid it (feeling nervous).”

But what truly prepared him were the rehearsals. “I was always excited whenever they tell me, oh, you have voice lessons, you have rehearsals, or you rehearse with the orchestra, or you have blocking. I would move my schedule around it to make it work.”

Paulo also credited the rehearsals for helping him pull off his first theater foray. It was time-consuming because Paulo had to juggle it with teleserye taping. He said, “Although you juggle it between projects, you get fulfillment there that you don’t get from other projects I’ve done. I enjoyed the singing parts. Si Mrs. C, laging nakabantay sa akin. She’d always talk to me, comment on how to improve and (how) to balance the emotions and singing.”

Jericho in another scene from the show.

The actor reprised the role of Tony Javier in Act 3. Back in 2017, he did the film version of Ang Larawan with Rachel Alejandro and Joanna Ampil. He said, “But the nice thing about the material we have, the other parts that I sang (in Contra Mundum), my other lines, weren’t part of the film. It’s something new for me.”

It also allowed Paulo to revisit his other interest, which is music. He released a self-titled album in 2012. “Maybe also because of accumulated life and work experiences, I think I’m a better singer (now) than when I had an album,” he said.

Paulo wants to do more similar projects in the future. “I enjoyed it. I’ve always wanted to look for a project that I can do on stage. I’m happy that this was my first. Because we technically have the best of the best and I learned from them. And they were always there to guide us newbies.” Same with Bea and Jericho, who both received offers to do a musical and straight play, respectively, for next year. They are all open for a possible re-run of Contra Mundum.

Said Bea, “The great actresses whom I’ve always looked up to, like Hilda Koronel, Nida Blanca, sila Dolphy, all of them came from theater, even those in Hollywood. So, parang I also want to follow in their footsteps.

“Because they already paved the way for us to enjoy all of these things, I also want to (do more theater). Although this is big shoes to fill, but sana pag-aralan ko rin magawa yung nagawa nila, for me to call myself an actress.”

Paulo, who learned more about discipline and presence of mind out of his first theater try, also said, “It’s not just a nice training ground, it also makes you a better actor.”

Contra Mundum boasts of a star-studded cast with National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab as musical director and conductor of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra (PPO), and Chris Millado as stage director. It was staged and produced to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Order of National Artists.
Photos courtesy OF Geoffrey Yusooncho (GK Photography)

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