Life is so hard these days that I have a tendency to treat theater as my happy pill. Safely embraced by comfortable seats in a glamorous theatre, I let my mind go and escape into a different realm. I come out somewhat rejuvenated by the mere sight of talent on spotlight. Himala did the exact opposite of that yet I have not an ounce of regret watching it. There is a brooding melancholy in me. As I type this, I still feel remnants of the musical in my blood stream. I left the theater trembling. I walked out of the theater with silent tears replacing the river of tears I left in the theatre. I had so much to say but I couldn't coherently converse with anyone because I was stuttering, still reeling from the impact of what I had just seen. I had to take a moment to recognize what shook me to the core.
Himala the Musical ( See Link : Himala the Musical Teaser) is an adaptation of the epic movie that Nora Aunor starred in. It was about a story of a peculiar town (Barangay Cupang) who was drowning in tragedy. A heroine is borne when their Elsa reveals that she had an encounter with the Virgin Mary. She starts healing the people and the town is changed for good. I knew the story, I knew the characters but what I didn't know was that despite this, it was still capable of puncturing me with constant punches of difficult truths being revealed scene after scene. The story I had expected to see was a retelling of Nora Aunor's role, Elsa, but what I witnessed was a retelling of the town's story. In an intimate setting, I entered Barangay Cupang and became a spectator of their life.
The performance started with sounds of the howling wind quieting down the audience The small black box theatre was transformed into a sunken garden with the audience surrounding what would be the provincial town of Cupang. Bamboo fences and minimal nipa structures separated the audience from the performers. Glistening in sweat, parched with poverty, the actors disturbed the silence. Soon, Elsa personified by Aicelle Santos, was introduced. Santos early on differentiated her performance from the iconic Nora Aunor as she deviated from the very mysterious glass-eyed Elsa. She came out early on as the most "unremarkable" almost "invisible" member of Cupang. To be honest, I was looking for her just like Nanay Saling (Bituin Escalante). There was an awkwardness to her steps and a tentativeness in her initial approach. It was much later that I completely grasped that Santos' Elsa was a clean canvass of nothingness. Her initial scenes were so intelligently laid out that at the end of the musical her transformation was poignant yet powerful. Santos succeeded in portraying a simple woman tested by burden, conflicted with a taste of unexpected fame, bruised by immorality and loss. At the end of the musical, she stood there in her sacred ground and addressed her people, totally changed by the experience. Santos was victorious in unfolding Elsa's humanity and redemption. Truth be told, I was impressed with her voice during the press conference but her stripped down interpretation of the songs gave so much meaning to the music and lyrics created by Vincent De Jesus. I didn't just hear the songs, I felt them.
|Aicelle Santos as Elsa|
Photo by : Kyle Venturillo
Nanay Saling is played by Bituin Escalante who broke my heart each time she came out. She was a picture of a mother who understood the concept of unconditional love. Her portrayal was so sensitive that it reminded me of how self-sacrificing a mother can be. Despite doubt, despite fear, despite conflicting beliefs a mother can hold her child's hand to weather the storm to protect her. Escalante's usual belting booming voice was replaced with evocative softness. Every lyric pronounced with crystalline emotion. I dare say this is one of her best stage performances.
The town who depicted the different voices of weakness in desperation was spectacular. Kakki Teodoro as Nimya was gold. As the antagonist, she was abrasive yet endearing and her voice was ringing above everyone else's. Neomi Gonzales as Chayong was the perfect contrast to Teodoro's boldness and Santos' meekness. She was delicate and immaculate in song and in characterization. David Ezra's tenor voice has a moving quality. His guilt-ridden portrayal as Orly was so pivotal to the story. Sandino Martin's intensity as Pilo was brilliant. He never let go of any scene. His silent moments were priceless and were just as marvelous as his notes. Floyd Tena as the voice of reason in this musical was solid. His anguish was affecting.
This musical is proof that there are no small roles, only small actors. The whole cast of this production was visibly invested in their individual characters with very specific motivations for each scene. I credit Director Ed Lacson for allowing the actors to give liberating performances that I'm certain will stay with them for a very long time as it will to the audience who witnessed their moments. Particularly memorable to me was Onyl Torres as one of Elsa's patients. He took us in a one minute journey of pain, healing and hope. Joshua Cabiladas' light and dark moments were pronounced. Many others in the ensemble made me weep. It was a full cast who left themselves at home and brought only their inner lights and darks on stage. I dare say this production is one of the best ensemble casts I have ever seen. The collective sound was haunting, their portrayals as real as it could get.
|Onyl Torres as a Patient|
Photo by Kyle Venturillo
The cast was brilliant, the immersive staging was effective. Undoubtedly these made the musical powerful. But this show is relevant because of its shift in perspective. This production took the simple concepts of herd mentality, hypocrisy, crab mentality, greed, tolerance and even stupidity and molded it into one single concept that is communicated with so much power. These are not ills you see in other people. Finding blame for something bad, treating everything as destiny, justifying actions, pretending to be good, remembering to pray only when things go your way- it happens in moments in our lives. It is intrinsic to the Filipino (and perhaps the rest of the world). These define us as a people. The delivery of Ricky Lee's relatable colloquial dialogue was so organic and familiar that I realized that even a generally positive person like me have echoed them several times over. We have all been compromised one way or another. What Director Ed Lacson Jr. was able to do was to prompt for understanding by highlighting the blistering image of humanity's imperfection. When the rain finally came, so did my tears. In a smothering black box, the normality of it was puncturing, disappointing, bothersome yet it was truthful. Surprisingly there was no feel of judgement in the staging. This staging made sure that the message was brought down to most personal level possible. The impact was for the audience to determine.
Lacson mentioned earlier in his interviews that the show was a stripped down version of the glorious material crafted by Ricky Lee and Vincent De Jesus. Contrary to how everyone else is describing it, I believe that it wasn't quite a stripped down version. It was a built up version because it empowered all the characters to come alive to efficiently allow art to imitate life. Yes it was accompanied by a single piano, yes the set was minimal, yes only natural voices were allowed on stage. However, replacing the frills was a stronger more diverse collective voice and a multifaceted delivery of stories. For me it was more of a story flipped over and presented in a new perspective with new aspects to think about and new nuances to salivate over.
Himala is truly a gift. It is a collaboration that sets the bar for everyone else.