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Why we need another ‘Himala’ |

Sunday Lifestyle

Why we need another ‘Himala’

ART DE VIVRE - Ricky Toledo, Chito Vijandre - The Philippine Star
Why we need another âHimalaâ

Aicelle Santos plays Elsa, the young maiden who claims to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary and thereafter heals the sick, creating a boom in tourist arrivals to her drought-stricken town.

‘The film may have been released three decades ago but its themes of collective hysteria, greed and compromised moral standards still resonate today.’

There are many challenges in creating a musical out of an acclaimed film that is already in the hallowed halls of Philippine cinema classics. Himala, written by Ricky Lee and directed by Ishmael Bernal in 1982, got its share of awards and adulation from local and international film festivals and has remained imbedded in the cherished memory of every devoted cinephile.

So should one tread on such sacred ground? Vincent de Jesus, the composer who has delighted us with many beloved stage musicals like Care Divas and the recent Changing Partners, felt there was still something to be said through music.

The dialogue in the movie is actually very spare. There is not much to be heard from the inscrutable Elsa, the young maiden who claims to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary and thereafter proceeds to heal the sick, creating a boom in visitor arrivals to the drought-stricken town of Cupang.

“Ang silence ni Elsa, what was she thinking about? That’s what I should write,” recalls De Jesus, who worked together with Lee in creating the musical, which was first staged at the CCP in 2003. The inner monologue is important, “the words left unsaid.” This silence reverberating with meaning was also something that inspired Lee when he was writing the original screenplay. “To get a sense of how people talk, I would listen to what people around me would say and what they would not say,” writes Lee in his book Sa Puso ng Himala. He marveled at how people often used beautiful words but sometimes would just be at a loss for words. “Pag-alis nila, pinupulot ko sa sahig ang mga naiwan nilang katahimikang walang salita.”

 It was these subtleties and sensibilities that impressed Ed Lacson Jr. when he saw Himala, Isang Musikal while he was still in college: “Hindi ko malililimutan ang time na iyan. First time ko manood ng musical na piano lang and it made the most impact on me. It was one of those things that drive you on your chosen path.” He also loved how it was a quintessential Filipino musical: “The story of Himala endures because it touches upon the very deep desire of Filipinos to believe, even at the cost of truth itself.”

Lacson, who directed the unforgettable Virgin Labfest play Maria Isabella at Ang Guryon Ng Mga Tala with the use of puppets, shadowplay and the strains of a classical guitar, proved to be the right person to helm the 15th anniversary restaging of the musical. Everything fell into place when The Sandbox Collective, the sister company of 9Works Theatrical, was looking for an original Filipino musical to mount. It was a perfect fit: De Jesus and Lee wanted a totally new cast and reworking of the musical while Lacson wanted to tell the iconic story in a new way for the current generation.

He singles out Sandbox and 9Works because “their circle, their crowd, are the younger ones.” He acknowledges that for those who have seen Himala there would always be that imprint. “There’s nothing I can do. It will be their best memory. So it’s really for those who haven’t seen it,” the director said in an interview.

Lacson may have been too modest since we, as well as others of our generation who have seen the past Himalas, have found his version to be a fresh, compelling take on this classic. One just has to read all the effusive testimonials on social media, not to mention the sold-out ticket sales, to see how this new Himala is making Philippine theater history.

Perhaps it owes its success to the fact that it’s not trying to be like any traditional “grand” musical with lavish sets, spectacles and dance numbers. The music alone, featuring a single piano, rejects all predictable musical formulae “like a lyrical pop ballad for the beautiful inamorata, sturm-und-drang solo for the antagonist and a riotous number for the whimsical arlecchino,” according to De Jesus. “I tried hard to avoid such musical stereotyping, evading musical traps that we composers fall into.” Thus his musical themes are not exclusively based on a character’s personality but more on a character’s emotions. “Leitmotifs emerged which are dissonant yet lyrical.”

With sets and staging, Lacson also went the opposite way by going spare but immersive: He transformed the black box theater of Power Mac Center Spotlight into an atmospheric setting where the audience is integrated in the sets, facing a “plaza” that acts as center stage, with nipa hut structures, bamboo fences and dried vegetation evoking the barren landscape of Cupang. As a spectator, you are right there where the action is, with the townspeople emerging from corners beside you, sans makeup and wearing scruffy, lived-in clothes.

The realism is even more pronounced because there are no lapel mikes, just the raw voices of the actors which makes for a powerful theatrical experience that brings out the essence of the drama and the characters in its distilled, unadulterated form.

And when you hear the voice of Aicelle Santos as Elsa with all its purity, you are simply transported to a celestial realm. She has placed her stamp on this character (originally played by Nora Aunor in the film) with her complex portrayal of outward innocence mixed with an underlying yearning to be loved and recognized, later transforming into a troubled soul undergoing doubts and emotional upheavals. Bituin Escalante, as Aling Saling, uses her powerful but articulated voice to effectively delineate the character of the mother who is at first doubtful but supportive of her daughter Elsa until the end when she has to face the overwhelming crowd.

Other supporting characters also have their moments: Noemi Gonzales shines as Chayong, Elsa’s friend and right hand who has mixed feelings for her boyfriend, Pilo, played by the versatile Sandino Martin who shows a range of emotions from frustration with their relationship to grief and desperation when he questions Elsa in Act II. Kakki Teodoro as Nimia, the other friend in Elsa’s triumvirate, is convincing as the hardened prostitute returning from Manila to open a cabaret. David Ezra is perfect as Orly, the photographer from Manila who grapples with his conscience in excellently rendered song.

It actually took a year and a half of long and rigorous auditions to assemble the ideal cast. The dissonant notes are actually not that easy to sing. “The songs have driven the actors to tears of frustration as early as rehearsals,” according to De Jesus. “It’s one thing to sing the libretto but acting compellingly requires a higher level of skill in order to convey the nuances and tension of each and every scene,” says Lacson. Even the ensemble actors playing the townspeople were all in character both when they were on the sidelines and when they created an overwhelming Mass during the climax scenes, effectively driving the drama of the story to its denouement when their fractured moral foundations collapse and their collective spiritual deprivation comes to the fore.

“This story wouldn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” says Lacson. “The film may have been released three decades ago but its themes of collective hysteria, greed and compromised moral standards still resonate today.”

* * *

Himala, Isang Musikal runs until March 4 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight at Circuit, Makati. For tickets contact 0917-5545560, 586-7105, or Ticketworld at 891-999 Follow the authors on Instagram @rickytchitov; Twitter @RickyToledo23 Facebook at Ricky Toledo Chito Vijandre.

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