MANILA, Philippines – Before his unexpected passing last June, acclaimed director and writer Mario O’Hara managed to finish a brand new play, “Stageshow,” for Tanghalang Pilipino’s current theater season.
And what a play it is.
Set in the dying days of the stageshow and bodabil in the 1950s, “Stageshow” tells of the travails of a group of struggling performing artists, who have been demoted to starring in freak shows in traveling carnivals and providing sexual favors in sleazy movie theaters.
|The cast of "Stageshow" acknowledge playwright Mario O'Hara (shown on screen) during the gala night of the new play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Saturday. Photo from the Facebook page of Tanghalang Pilipino Foundation
But more than providing the plot for his play, O’Hara took its structure from the old stageshows, which blended comedy skits, song and dance numbers, ribald jokes and staged melodrama, and even gave nods to film and radio dramas as the new forms of mass entertainment during that era.
Before the gala performance of “Stageshow” last Saturday at the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Nanding Josef, artistic director of Tanghalang Pilipino, said O’Hara first gave the script of “Stageshow” three years ago. And while the theater group found the play “really touching,” it was only last year that they decided to include the play in its current 26th season with the theme “Truth and Consequence.”
“We called Mario for a meeting with (director) Chris Millado to discuss his play, and I asked him why he wrote the play. He said, ‘I wanted to document what I personally know and what I witnessed -- and he meant the lives and loves of the bodabil artists, the stageshow artists, who were so dedicated and so passionate about their craft, highly skilled, exceptionally talented and gifted artists that are, like many of us contemporary artists, unlucky in love and money,” Josef said in a speech.
“Mario captured that in his script and he said, ‘Gusto ko ito maisulat bago ako mamatay.’ He said that when we were discussing the play. I never thought that he was sick at that time,” Josef added.
Josef then dedicated the play to the memory of Filipino stageshow artists such as Dolphy, Pugo, Patsy and many others “na halos nakalimutan na natin katulad ng pagkalimot natin sa ating sariling kultura.”
Pointing to the number of empty seats at the theater during Saturday’s gala night, Josef lamented the lack of support from audiences for Filipino artists, citing the success of "The Phantom of the Opera" that was playing at the CCP Main Theater.
“Hindi po ako nagagalit, naiinggit lang po ako at hayaan niyo po akong mainggit. Ang mahal po ng ticket nila, pero punong-puno araw-araw,” he said.
“Maganda naman po talaga ‘yung palabas kaya naman po talagang pinapanood,” he said of the touring production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, which had to be extended several times due to strong public demand. “Pero kakausapin ko kayo mamaya pagkatapos ng show. Tingnan ko lang kung hindi niyo sabihin na magagaling ang mga artistang Pilipino.”
That was no empty boast. “Stageshow” is indeed a showcase of local talent, in particular the real-life husband-and-wife tandem of Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino and Nonie Buencamino, playing the central characters of Ester, a member of the trio Tres Dahlias, and Tirso, the bandleader of The Bandits.
|Real-life couple Nonie Buencamino and Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino play the lead roles in "Stageshow." Photo: Handout
“Stageshow” essentially tracks the troubled romance of the couple with their marriage mirroring the decline of this particular form of entertainment. Ester narrates her plight, which is presented “stageshow” style, with key events in their rocky relationship acted out through production numbers, skits and even a radio play, complete with sound effects done live onstage.
Centenera showed why she is an award-winning film actress, taking on the different acting styles peculiar to the various entertainment genres and seamlessly shifting from one to the other, while her husband Buencamino was simply a glowing musical theater presence. Their tap dance numbers, while rather simple, sparkled with joy that was fun to watch.
The rest of the cast, which includes theater actress-turned-activist Mae Paner, now better known for her “Juana Change” persona, exuded great respect for the material that one can immediately feel their eagerness and desire to do O’Hara proud. They embraced the hokeyness of the stageshow genre and the dated jokes to deliver genuine performances without unnecessarily playing to the gallery.
This exuberance was exemplified by playwright and actor Rody Vera, playing veteran actor Bobby Gonzales, who gamely performed such hits like “Ikaw ang Mahal Ko.”
O’Hara himself chose the songs in the musical, which are actual hits during that era, which were then arranged and orchestrated in the same period style by Jeff Hernandez, giving the musical a natural nostalgic feel that would be hard to approximate by original songs. Here is an instance where the often-derided “jukebox” style of stage musical worked so touchingly well. The good vibes brought about by the Tagalog translation of the standard “By the Light of the Silvery Moon” (retitled “Sa Liwanag ng Buwan”) were both wistful and moving.
Just like O’Hara’s “Babae sa Bubungang Lata,” which beneath its "pito-pito" origins, is really an ode to the Filipino films of a faded era, “Stageshow” is a loving tribute to this forgotten genre and the artists of that period – his feelings captured so honestly in a eulogy at the play’s end that it brought some of the audience members to tears.
Like his actors, Millado also showed great respect for O’Hara, allowing the script to shine and take flight, careful not to interfere with the playwright’s original vision, which included pronounced film characteristics. Millado brought all those to life, while keeping the theatricality and mood of “Stageshow” intact.
One can’t help but wonder what O’Hara would make of the show. It has been said that O’Hara did a rewrite and attended a reading of the show; however, rehearsals had yet to start when he passed away. What kind of suggestions would he have made in terms of the staging? Would he have rewritten certain parts? Would he have approved of some of the creative decisions that have been made?
Perhaps the biggest question would be: Would O’Hara have made a movie out of this?
Based on the success of “Stageshow,” a movie version is indeed an intriguing, exciting prospect. But in the meantime, there’s so much to savor – and be thankful for -- in this stage production.
“Stageshow” runs at the CCP Little Theater from Oct. 17-20 at 8 p.m., with 3 p.m. matinees on Oct. 19-21 and a 10 a.m. matinee on Oct. 21.