Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Bituing Walang Ningning the Musical (Resorts World Manila)

1980’s. Manila. The dominance of the cassette tape is threatened by the sudden arrival of the compact disc, which many consider to be the future of music consumption. But this does not bother diehard fan Dorina Pineda (Monica Cuenco), because she will buy whatever music superstar Lavinia Arguelles (Cris Villonco) produces regardless of its format. Manager cum boyfriend Nico Escobar (Mark Bautista) thinks her matinee idol girlfriend should expand her repertoire by singing ballads in addition to her dance music, but she thinks that the shift in style would mean losing her fan base. Their creative differences eventually take its toll on their personal relationship. After seeing Dorina perform as a singer at a sing-along bar, Nico entertains the idea of launching her as a balladeer for his very own recording label. Lavinia is not really open to the idea of her once wide-eyed fan now becoming her rival, and makes sure that she does everything in her power to remain on top. In the glitzy world of showbiz where the quest for fame and stardom could tear a person apart, is there really a place for a love that conquers all?

Monica Cuenco is okay as Dorina given her status as a theater newbie. Come to think of it, this character’s earlier incarnations have not been that popular for their persona either. The real beauty of the role is in its transformation from the annoyingly naive fan to the formidable rival who decides to give her idol a run for her money. This is the typical underdog story that Filipinos will always love. If anything, the role serves as a good vehicle to launch upcoming stars that have the potential to make it big. For that purpose alone, Cuenco is already a winner. All she needs to do is accept more projects; the improvement of her craft would follow. As a consolation, whatever she lacks in terms of acting, she makes up for through her singing. Hers is a powerful voice that could still be honed with both training and experience.

Cris Villonco will never get a negative review from me because this girl always delivers but perhaps she might get flak for her slightly different attack of the character, and this would all be because of its strong association with Cherie Gil, who made Lavinia truly iconic. She is the archetype of the Filipina villain, and the very reason why almost everyone born until the mid 90’s would be familiar with the ever popular “copycat” one-liner. But to compare both would not be that helpful given the different medium. Gil’s cold and subtle demeanor was perfect for the movie, in which various filmmaking techniques such as close-ups and the like maximized the intended effect. The same attack would be deemed lacking onstage, especially in a musical where exaggeration is the key to appreciation. This is not to say that Villonco goes over-the-top, but rather has to up the ante a bit to keep up with the flow. In any case, both actresses manage to bring Lavinia’s major character flaw to the fore: her insecurity. And that is exactly the point.

Mark Bautista commands the stage better now. Perhaps, his West End stint has really helped establish himself more as a theater actor than a pop singer. There are moments when his singing becomes a bit nasal, but his performance has been applauded more than shunned, and one particular solo of his received a very hearty applause from the audience. The only problem I see is the lack of chemistry between him and Cuenco, which could pose a real problem because when you think about it, this is what the song is all about! Here you have a girl announcing to the world through song that she is choosing her man over her career. Somehow, we are not convinced.

Both Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo and Jon Santos are certified scene stealers, but not in a bad way, because they offer the much needed comic relief necessary for more balance. But perhaps the real scene stealers are the songs, which transport you back to a time when OPM reigned supreme, and the power of Tagalog as a language to convey universal messages such as love or ambition could never be more poetic. Nowadays, we no longer get to hear original Filipino music that will send shivers down your spine with its lyrics alone. This musical succeeds in reminding us at least that Filipino music once reached those heights. Maybe all that is needed to be done is revive it.

As for other aspects, production value alone is already worth the admission price. In Cuenco’s rendition of Pangarap na Bituin, the stage is bathed with the light of a thousand digital stars, and it’s plain wicked. It makes you feel as though you are watching a real concert. The costumes shout, “Shining! Shimmering! Splendid!” and all the weirdness in terms of fashion sense and quirky dance numbers that you can associate with the 80’s are present to give you a genuine trip down memory lane. Projectors are used to present photo montages, video clips, and imagined sets, which prove to be effective in driving down not just the cost of production but also the length of exposition as far as character development is concerned.

Adapting this material for the stage is inevitable but quite tricky. Everything started out in print, but it was the film version that ultimately made the story a household name. A soap opera was also produced and was successful in its own right. But different mediums call for different measures. The print version sufficed in a time when television and radio dramas were not yet en vogue. The film version served as a vehicle to solidify the status of Viva’s biggest star ever, and also produced one of the country’s finest kontrabidas to date. The TV version relied on interwoven subplots to sustain its daily run. For the stage version, however, they seem to have taken an element from all the other formats, and then banked on an impressive ensemble cast to pull it through. Despite the attachment you might feel for your preferred rendition of this classic story, do give the musical a chance. You might just like it, and it's not as if you're not going to have a good time.

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