Bittersweet Symphony: A Review Of "Ang Huling El Bimbo"
For a great number of millennials, adolescence and discovering one’s identity happened in the 1990s, and the soundtrack of that period was dominated by bands such as the Eraserheads. One of the most iconic bands of that era, it’s only fitting that their music finally finds a stage musical, Ang Huling El Bimbo —which utilizes their songs in a dramatic story about friendships, about hope and wayward dreams. Now running at the Resorts World Theater, it’s wonderful to see such a high regard for production values harnessed to bring this stage magic to life.
Never mind that the title of this piece is a Verve tune; as it aptly captures both the grandeur and heartfelt angst that permeates this production. Revolving around the story of three friends, the musical is a double helix narrative with one narrative concerned with three estranged friends (Hector, Emman, and Anthony) in the present day, summoned to the police station when the unsolved death of a friend (Joy) has transpired. In the other narrative, we flashback to the college life of the three, how they met, bonded, befriended Joy, and we discover what haunts them to this day, the why’s of them falling apart.
With so many E-Heads songs to choose from, it’s worthy to note the ingenious manner in which these tunes are stretched, twisted, and made to serve the plot development. As director Dexter M. Santos is the play’s choreographer as well, it’s no surprise that my personal highlight was how he uses "Pare Ko" as an ROTC marching song. What was one of the most plaintive, ‘I’m talking to you the listener, and unloading my girl troubles’ songs; has become a percussive, martial rendition, complete with troop formation, mock rifles, and shouting in unison. Gleefully, the whole audience opening night broke out in smiles, clapping to the beat, and singing along!
"Alapaap", "Spoilarium", and of course, the title song, "Ang Huling El Bimbo" are the other crowd favorites. And to my ear, there were a host of lesser known songs that diehard Eraserheads fans would immediately recognize. Again, how they’ve been selected and made of service to the story had me saluting Dingdong Novenario and Myke Salomon, the playwright and musical director respectively.
The ensemble cast is terrific; but if I had to single out some performers, in the present-day narrative, it would be Gian Magdangal, and how he attacks his songs so that they sound Rock-based, while still harboring Broadway and theater dimensions. In the ‘young’ narrative, Tanya Manalang as Joy and hyperactive Reb Atadero are my choices. And a shout out to Sheila Francisco as Toyang, Joy’s aunt and the proprietress of the neighborhood turo-turo where our three friends hang out—she brought the house down during her duet with Joy. Kudos to Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, Topper Fabregas, Jon Santos, Boo Gabunada and OJ Mariano for wonderful performances.
If I have to be critical, I would say that the insistence on keeping touch with both narratives, at times made the musical drag. In the first half, there was so much fun and verve in the college narrative, yet we kept going back to the present-day city jail set where nothing was really happening except waiting for Konsehal Banlaoi (Jamie Wilson). I don’t know if just trusting one narrative to take us to the intermission would have tightened the exposition, and made it more streamlined. After all, as expected, in the second half, the present-day narrative dominated.
It’s still early days to say whether Huling El Bimbo will enjoy the sustaining power of Rak of Aegis, which has to be our local benchmark for using the songbook of a popular band and giving us a musical bursting with drama, humor, and social commentary. But it is great times for musicals of this genre, as next month heralds Musical nAPO.
With the Sugarfree songbook already serviced in this manner, we can only guess when the likes of True Faith, Parokya, Rivermaya, and The Dawn get this kind of musical treatment. In the meantime, enjoy what we have, E-Heads music as never seen and heard before.
Lead photos by Philip Cu-Unjieng