Ang Huling El Bimbo returns to the stage after a successful run last year.
Culture Spotlight

Here’s a suggestion to make Ang Huling El Bimbo better

While the musical inspired by the discography of one of the most influential bands in the Philippines is a hit, it has been met with mixed to negative reviews. Here’s a humble recommendation.
Jacs T. Sampayan | May 26 2019

I was a teenager in the 90s when the Eraserheads came to prominence. My generation could be forgiven for thinking that ours were the songs and ethos those crazy kids from Diliman pulled inspiration from. Back then, we were feeling those sweet highs and frustrating lows in real time. Heck, we were the ethos.

 

More about the stage:

Tanya Manalang plays Joy, Nicco Manalo plays Emman, Lance Reblando plays Anthony, and Reb Atadero plays Hector in the 2019 staging of Ang Huling El Bimbo.

When I first saw Full House Theater Company and Resorts World Manila’s Ang Huling El Bimbolast year I was disheartened, truth be told. While the production and performances were commendable, the story and a particularly problematic second act left much to be desired. Like some of the casting choices and the use of tired narrative tropes, it all felt incredibly put-on, staged by someone who seemed out-of-touch with what’s genuine.

The story opens with a reunion of sorts, between three former friends: Eman Hector, and Anthony. They’d rather not be in the same room together but they are forced to do so under unfortunate circumstances. In a series of flashbacks, the musical traces how their friendship was formed decades ago, in a college not unlike UP. There, they would meet Joy, whose life will be intertwined with theirs, through both love and loss.

For the most part, the musical fails to reflect the Eraserheads of my youth: nostalgic and bittersweet, touching on the best—and worst—of what it means to be young. Their songs talk about what it means to live in a melting pot of a city, where economic class determines one’s decisions. Despite this, there’s always an underlying hope—oftentimes expressed in an almost throwaway manner. “Lecheng pag-ibig to” is sung in the same breath as “andito ka ay ayos na,” or “we’ll get by with a smile” coming right after “you can never be too happy in this life.” 

While some of the production’s problems are already apparent from the beginning, the halfway point is where things go awry. The tragedy that befalls Joy, the female lead, weighs down the rest of the production, as expected. But the story does not believably recover from it, and the supposed redemption of the three men at the center of it all (Hector, Eman, and Anthony) feels hollow and unearned. Some of my friends would even call it exploitative. (For more on their thoughts, click here.)

Joy, played by Tanya Manalang, is an optimistic young woman whose life gets intertwined with three guys at a nearby school.

Hits and misses

Despite these problems, the production was a hit in 2018, prompting a restaging this year. There’s an Anton Ego lesson buried in there somewhere.

For this new staging, veteran playwright Floy Quintos came in to add scenes, and rework the second act. I don’t presume to guess what such an indomitable figure sought to achieve with his contributions, but what I saw was more teleserye explosiveness and unearned catharsis.

To me, the second half was not asking for more gravitas; it needed a more fitting unfurling of tension. It needed the three guys to be reminded of their best selves. A point not satisfyingly arrived at with just one good cry.

Nicco Manalo, Reb Atadero, and Lance Reblando play Emman, Hector, and Anthony, three friends who meet in college.

In the 2019 version, the most driven character remains to be Joy, though to the point of inexplicability. Constantly failed by the men around her—assholes in one form or another—she maintains a boundless optimism for no reason. She is destroyed in one scene and is handing out congratulatory floral necklaces in the next as if nothing has happened. 

After the time jump in the middle, the audience follows the older Joy as she navigates through her new-old life. She is played by a gritless Menchu Lauchengco sporting a privileged twang that is hard to reconcile with her character’s troubled past. (I don’t doubt the capability of the actors in this production but there are certain compatibility problems—such as age—that end up as distractions.)

 

A humble suggestion

The way older Joy is written only reinforces the use of old melodramatic tricks. There is one character introduced after the jump that should have been used in a different way: Ligaya, Joy’s daughter. 

It would have been more rewarding to see more of Ligaya and not see her so hastily inserted at the end. The denouement was so rapid; a foreshadowing would have served the story better.

Which brings me to this proposal: why not take out the older Joy character altogether and replace her stage time with her daughter. Instead of being spoonfed the ways Joy’s life crumbled into ruin, why not let the audience work a little bit more for their meal.

Elisha Campos plays Ligaya and Carla Guevara-Lagorteza alternates with Menchu Launchengco as older Joy.

Ligaya—perhaps a slightly older one—would have been a fitting vehicle to present the change in the broken men of this musical. For all intents and purposes Ligaya is Joy.

As it is and for most of the second act, the musical doesn’t show an underlying hope, the light with the dark. Ligaya, being the device from which Joy’s hopes and dreams are reflected upon, can provide that balance and breathing room.

Like every other glorious Eraserheads song, the good exist with the bad. Shit happens everyday but so do miracles, second chances, and real, believable redemption. I know it sounds funny, as the band’s ultimate song about hope has told us time and again, but I’ll say it anyway: they should have asked me. 

For more information on Ang Huling El Bimbo, please visit their Facebook page.