I’m not an Aegis fan. My occasional encounters with their music are limited to the ones belted by rabid neighbors having a videoke party.
I am, however, a fan of musicals based on pop music. ‘Mamma Mia’ did it with the dance tunes of Abba. ‘Rock of Ages’ did it with the glam metal hits of Bon Jovi, Styx, Journey and others. Can a Philippine production do it with the “sawi sa pag-ibig” songs of Aegis band?
With this curiosity, I eagerly went to the PETA-Phinma Theater to catch the opening gala of the original comedy musical ‘Rak of Aegis.’
The first thing that strikes you once you are seated in the theater is the set. This comedy musical takes place in the fictional town of Barangay Venizia. If Venice, Italy is known for its canals, Barangay Venizia is notorious for floods, monsoon season or not. And the set is as realistic as it can get.
There’s an ‘eskinita’ that’s knee-deep in flood right smack on center stage. True to form, the actors navigate the watery alley using a banca. Surrounding the set are flimsy shanties, and to get from one platform to the next, actors precariously cross wooden planks that serve as makeshift bridges.
Central to the story is Aileen (portrayed by Aicelle Santos). All her life, she’s lived in this water world and she wants out. She dreams of becoming rich and famous, and there’s one way to do it… and you bet it's not through honest-to-goodness years of hard work.
Rather, she plans to post a splashy YouTube music video that she hopes will go viral, enough for Ellen Degeneres to take notice and invite her to guest in Hollywood. All this to the consternation of Aileen’s parents, Mercy and Kiel (Kakai Bautista and Robert Sena).
And what would her song of choice be? If there’s rain and flood, Aegis’ trademark song ‘Basang-basa sa Ulan’ can’t be far behind.
There’s a love triangle dimension, with two suitors pining for Aileen’s heart: The self-absorbed artist-wannabe Kenny (Poppert Bernadas) and the shy boat rower (as in ‘torpeng taga-sagwan ng bangka’) Tolits (Jerald Napoles).
There’s a socio-political angle, too. Apparently, the flooding in Barangay Venizia is caused by a neighboring subdivision. The barangay kapitana Mary Jane (Isay Alvarez) must battle it out with the unscrupulous subdivision developer to save her constituents who are growing agitated by the day.
This musical is a great tribute to the music of Aegis. Through the voice of Aileen, ‘Basang-basa sa Ulan’ becomes not just the song of a lonely soul searching for love, but a cry of despair from those who are marginalized and neglected in the fringes of society: ‘Heto ako, basang-basa sa ulan/ Walang masisilungan, walang malalapitan.’
One of the high points in the show is the end of act one where the full cast sings a medley of ‘Basang-Basa,’ ‘Luha,’ and ‘Palad.’ ‘Luha’ resonates so much with the helpless barangay Venizia folks: ‘Ayoko nang mangarap/ Ayaw ko nang tumingin/ Nasasaktan ang damdamin.’
But the show is also a critique on Filipinos’ narrow view of extricating himself from destitution. Aileen’s YouTube video became a viral hit precisely because the floods were a novelty. The international press started covering Aileen, and her fund-raising concert was staged amid the floods.
When the pumping station started draining the water, everyone panicked and screamed for the floods to stay. There was an inventive twist to the way the song ‘Halik’ was used in this scene. Originally written as ‘Ang halik mo, nami-miss ko,’ this became ‘Ang delubyo, mami-miss ko!’
I give props to the actors for their singing prowess and comedic timing, especially Santos, Bernadas, Napoles and Bautista. Santos and Napoles perform a fantastic duet of the song ‘Sinta’ with a chorus of lavanderas which is a hit with the audience.
Unfortunately, while Alvarez and Bautista are tried-and-tested veterans, their characters are just too limiting to allow them to showcase the full range of their talents.
I must commend a supporting cast member, Phi Palmos, who plays the role of Jewel, a gay sari-sari store owner/aspiring shoe designer. Jewel has a number (ala Marcelito Pomoy) that’s a showstopper.
If there’s a weakness to the show, it’s the diluted narrative. There are way too many messages and subplots in the story that drive away from the core.
Towards the end of act one, Aileen faces an avalanche of woes: her dreams of fame, love life, work, family life are all falling apart. But the turmoil fails to reach an emotional crescendo because the story is saddled with too many sub-problems. Perhaps some streamlining is in order.
There’s an inherent difficulty in creating a musical based on really famous songs. There’s a tendency for the music to override the narrative. There’s also a compulsion from some of the actors to resort to cheap laughs instead of allowing the moment to flow organically.
But this musical is successful in that it has elevated the music of Aegis and breathed new life into the lyrics as a social commentary.
‘Rak of Aegis’ is directed by Maribel Legarda, written by Liza Magtoto, musical direction and arrangement by Myke Salomon, and set design by Mio Infante.