"If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent him," Voltaire once said. It is a statement one might call cynical, poking fun at humanity's tendency to insist on the reality of salvation and miracles despite a world that brutally begs to differ. I don't know whose place it is to call him right or wrong. But if Voltaire were to look upon those who live in Barrio Cupang, he would smirk.
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Himala is set in Barrio Cupang, a desolate land plagued by sickness whose residents hunger for providence. They place their lives in the hands of Elsa, a faith healer who claims to have seen the apparition of the blessed Virgin Mary. What transpires is the consequence of such dizzying visions, and the lengths we will go to preserve the idea of the sacred in our absurd existence. It is my job as a critic to give you a passable synopsis of what I have seen, but much like Thomas who could barely believe the wounds of Christ even as he was touching them, I still cannot comprehend the glory of The Sandbox Collective's stage adaptation.
The production begins with the sound of ominous wind, which silences those in attendance and sets the threateningly prophetic tone of the show. But one thing you'll notice is how cleanly sound travels in a space like Powermac Center Spotlight. The stage is surrounded on all sides by rafters, giving the audience a three-dimensional view instead of the usual panoramic setup. What becomes clearer throughout the play is, despite this atypical approach to space, each scene gets the blocking perfect every time. We have director Ed Lacson Jr. to thank for that—with Himala, we get to see him flex his spatial and choral mastery over large ensemble casts. Many crowd scenes in this production feel like actual, absolute hysteria.
But let's go back to sound, or specifically the music, which is the aspect of this production that does the most heavy lifting. This is especially true if you're adapting what many consider to be the Citizen Kane of Philippine cinema. Aicelle Santos gives us a soul-rattling performance as Elsa. But much like her character straddling the line between human and divine, she sings with a voice that oscillates between delicate and thunderous. Neomi Gonzales and Kakki Teodoro, who play Chayong and Nimia respectively, are not ones to be overshadowed, showcasing vocal and acting chops that could overpower most leads. Stage veteran Shiela Francisco as Saling is a powerhouse here as well—whenever the scene homes its focus on her, breathing becomes difficult. The solo vocal deliveries on this show are god-tier in themselves, but the choral parts get due props as well, the way they immerse the viewers in a feeling that borders on panic.
It would be blasphemous if we didn't give just due to composer Vincent A. deJesus. I personally am used to seeing stage productions that make use of a full orchestra. But deJesus’s compositions give the piano such breadth that you wouldn't think these sounds, strong enough to collapse the walls of Jericho, were coming from one lone instrument. His melodic sense play such a huge part in defining the emotional tone of the production. Harmonious passages and spots of dissonance bring you into a headspace of holy dread.
I couldn’t believe the play’s initial reviews when they first came out. “It is everything—it is what theater was made for,” says Jonjon Rufino, and I have to agree. The music and stellar acting may be the highlights of this show, but with every aspect, such as lighting, props, and stage design, Himala gets everything right.
Having not seen Himala in its original form or in any of its iterations, I consider myself blessed that my first encounter with the story is Sandbox Collective’s adaptation. The volatility of theater guarantees that no staging is ever flawless—once or twice, you as an audience member might encounter the occasional flubbed line, the rare flat note. But barring that, Himala is perfect. It is impossible to overrate. This musical should be fucking canonized.
For more information, please visit their Sandbox Collective’s Facebook page.