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It’s No Miracle: Aicelle Santos Is Theater’s Brightest Star

Himala, Isang Musikal is clearly the play of the season. Social media feeds are burning with praise for this most creative and daring interpretation of the Ricky Lee-Vincent de Jesus material—done theater-in-the-round style, no microphones, and it literally rains at some point in the production. People are mouthing off raves as if, like its lead character Elsa, they had seen the Blessed Virgin and are overcome with emotion. Commendations for its lead star are equally generous.

“Santos’ portrayal of Elsa takes us on the breathless 360-degree journey of a rural girl unwillingly thrust into a messianic role, matched by a formidable set of pipes that scale even the most punishing heights of the score,” says the Inquirer.

 

“She gave Elsa a more youthful vibe. Yet the depth of her characterization was impressive. She clearly captured the character’s ambiguity and darker shades, while maintaining a seemingly innocent façade,” wrote ABS-CBN News.

Santos’s theater resume is short but impressive. She has only done four plays since debuting as the young Katy dela Cruz in the musical Katy! in 2013 but each production she’s in is high-profile material. The year 2014 gave her the lead role in Rak of Aegis, the box-office sensation with its record-breaking 135 performances in its first staging alone. Last year, she landed a small but important part in Joel Lamangan’s staging of Lino Brocka’s Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag—the heartbreaking tale of two promdis who get eaten up by the big bad city—for which Santos snagged an Aliw Award. “There’s a progression in the maturity of the roles,” she says of her short journey as stage actress, “from young hopeful spirit in Katy! to adult women surviving the harsh realities of life in Rak and Maynila.”

Her career on the stage maybe in its infancy but Santos has been chasing the spotlight for quite a while. This Psychology grad began her career as contestant in ABS-CBN’s Star In A Million, which led to gigs in bars and acoustic lounges. The gigs would help refine and strengthen her singing but wouldn’t do much to advance her career. A pop, soul and R&B artist at heart, she took a second stab at a solo act through another talent search, GMA’s Pinoy Pop Superstar. She has since landed roles on TV, belonged to an all-belter group, appeared in the film Ang Larawan, and cut two solo albums, the last one the self-produced Liwanag (2016) where she penned some of the songs.

But it is in theater where it seems she is embraced the warmest. It was her Katy! and Rak co-stars Isay Alvarez, Robert Seña and Tricia Jimenez who first saw she might be a fit for the stage. Santos considers them her mentors.

“Aicelle has always been a star,” says The Sandbox Collective’s Toff de Venecia, co-producer of Himala, Isang Musikal (yes, he’s also the congressman). “Her talent has always been bursting at the seams, as evidenced by her body of work in the music, theater and film industry, and recently in her portrayal of Elsa. But what really won us over is her humility and her spirit. It’s a beautiful thing to experience, as a fan of hers, as a colleague in the industry, and as a friend. It’s such a gargantuan task to have to step into the shoes of Elsa, a role which has become synonymous with Nora Aunor for over three decades. Sure, lots of people have the talent to sing those beautiful songs of Vincent de Jesus, or speak the words of Ricky Lee, but very few people have the spirit to inhabit the role with grace.”

Preparing for Elsa wasn’t easy. “Himala’s level of difficulty in terms of acting is 10/10,” Santos says. “I am a more confident singer than an actress, so landing this role still amazes me.”

Aware of the original material’s weight and history—swept awards at the 1982 MMFF, the first Filipino film to compete in the Berlin film fest, among others—Santos approached the role of the Cupang messiah with humility, keeping faithful to the script and story. She had to, in her words, “dissect and graph the character.” She did research for especially challenging parts. “The biggest challenge was to keep and hold heavy emotions throughout the show. That means being sad and distraught for the whole duration of the musical.” It helped, she says, that she had a good director in the young and promising Ed Lacson Jr. And being with a stellar cast of theater pros didn’t hurt. “I didn’t mind the intensity of the rehearsals. It was needed! To find and shape our characters visually and Baryo Cupang as a whole.”

This early, avid theater enthusiasts are predicting bigger things for Santos. Now that she’s played one of the most famous, and certainly most demanding parts in Philippine stage, could an international production be next? After all, she already made it to third callback during the 2012 Manila auditions for Miss Saigon.

But for this weekend and the next, you can find Santos at Circuit Makati, at the PowerMac Center Spotlight, where she dons a white dress, puts on a white veil and puts on Elsa, the yarn-spinning, all-singing small-town lass of Baryo Cupang, a town desperate for rain, for a quick buck, for good news. Does she see Aicelle in Elsa? “Aicelle is as hopeful and a dreamer like Elsa,” Santos says. “We both are strong-willed and have strong faith, Aicelle in God, and Elsa in the Virgin Mary. When Elsa prays and heals the sick, it's also Aicelle that you somehow see.”  
 

Photos by Jeeves de Veyra for ABS-CBN News.com