MANILA -- 2018 will be remembered as a groundbreaking year for Philippine theater.
But it certainly didn’t look like a promising one at the start of the year. Repertory Philippines was back to doing farces and even scrapped its annual major musical. PETA had calendared only one new production to give way to another rerun of its moneymaker “Rak of Aegis.”
“Rak” wasn’t the only one that was back. PETA also restaged “Galileo” this time at its Quezon City home; the indie darling “Sa Wakas” returned for a lengthy final run; Tanghalang Pilipino basked in Gawad Buhay glory and restaged the award-winning “Ang Pag-uusig”; Nyoy Volante kicked up a storm anew in his red boots in Atlantis Theatricals’ “Kinky Boots”; and Resorts World Manila brought back “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” for another spin.
Then came the shocking announcement that 9 Works Theatrical, known for its crowd-pleasing productions of Broadway fare, and its sister company Sandbox Productions, known for more millennial material, were teaming up for the revival of the original Filipino musical “Himala.”
Then Resorts World Manila stunned theatergoers with the announcement that it was doing “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” a musical featuring the music of the iconic ‘90s band Eraserheads, which was followed almost immediately by 9 Works’ own jukebox musical, “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO,” with the songs of OPM pioneers Apo Hiking Society.
Apart from the surprising selections from the industry’s main players, the year also saw brave new works from indie sources and university-based groups, as well as the rise of new players that potentially can take Philippine theater to a whole new level.
But more significant is that many of these productions played to full houses, generated ecstatic responses and word of mouth and attracted audiences beyond the usual core of theater devotees.
Has the game finally changed? Well, perhaps. Rep, for one, announced not one, but two original musicals for 2019. That deserves a toast.
10 BEST PRODUCTIONS FOR 2018
1. “Dekada '70”
The past couple of years saw a spike in productions about the Martial Law years and this stage musical adaptation of Lualhati Bautista’s seminal novel “Dekada '70” easily stands out with its calm direction, moving storytelling, heartfelt performances and surprisingly pop-friendly score. By focusing on a typical middle-class family struggling to keep it together amid the political turmoil of the ‘70s, “Dekada '70” brilliantly humanizes the protest movement as it rallies us to action. An emotionally memorable musical that’s bound to be restaged again and again and again because we should #NeverForget.
2. “The Kundiman Party”
If this is indeed the swan song of Floy Quintos, he couldn’t have chosen a better farewell. “The Kundiman Party” is vintage Quintosian, an intelligent and witty play that was able to make the kundiman relevant in the time of Duterte in a believable and passionate manner. With a sparkling gaggle of stage luminaries led by the regal Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, “The Kundiman Party” is about culture and politics, titas of Manila and millennials, then and now, thoughtfully and entertainingly brought together.
3. "Himala: Isang Musikal"
The idea seemed simple enough: to mount a brand-new production that would celebrate the 15th anniversary of “Himala,” the musical stage adaptation of the iconic movie. But "Himala: Isang Musikal" is not just a mere restaging but the definitive version of this celebrated work. More importantly, it heralded an exciting new mindset that finally destroys the long-standing divide in the local theater scene between companies that stage Broadway fare and groups that mount original Filipino works.
4. "Night Mother"
PETA couldn’t have chosen a better time to finally mount this two-character play about depression and suicide. Ian Lomongo doesn’t just translate Marsha Norman’s Pulitizer Prize-winning work to Filipino but brilliantly transposes it to present-day Metro Manila, making it feel current and relatable with a hyper-realistic set and direction and riveting performances from Sherry Lara and Eugene Domingo. It even had post-performance discussions with mental health professionals to complete the educational theater experience.
5. “Ang Huling El Bimbo”
Love it or hate it, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” deserves major props for taking a darker, dangerous path instead of a nostagic long and winding road back to our college years. It was not the Eraserheads musical many were expecting; it stirs bittersweet memories yet constantly nags us about today’s violent world. It ingeniously takes the music of our youth and twists them in keeping with our new realities.The greatest tribute it can give to this iconic band is to make its music resonate and remain relevant to the present generation. And this is as current as it gets.
Another impressive staging of a Lualhati Bautista masterpiece, “Desaparesidos” is a powerful reminder of the horrors of the Martial Law years, showing how the terror continues haunt many years later. Harrowingly staged with rightful indignation by Guelan Varela-Luarca, it obviously aims to jolt the audiences — and it succeeds with well-honed stage craft, honest performances and noble intentions.
7. "Mula Sa Buwan"
Who would have thought that a period musical based on a French classic, and translated into deep and poetic Filipino, done in a sarswela style with songs inspired by the kundiman would become a big hit among casual theatergoing millennials? This independently produced musical adaptation of “Cyrano de Bergerac” set in Manila during World War II has had several runs but this definitive and final staging glowed with an unexplainable magic that had audiences crying and cheering at the same time.
8. “Balag at Angud”
The most underrated musical this year ran into all sorts of problems, including a typhoon that cancelled its last weekend of performances. That’s just too bad because “Balag at Angud” deserved to be seen by more people with its inspiringly joyful message about pursuing passions as it tells the story of award-winning sculptor and installation artist Junyee and the sacrifices he had to make for his art.
9. “Labor Room”
This year’s biggest question remains: Why didn’t “Labor Room” make the Revisited set of Virgin Labfest? In this #MeToo environment, this girl-powered play should have been a shoo-in. This one-act ably captures the range of emotions, the non-stop action and the energy of the setting — a waiting room at a busy provincial hospital — brilliantly brought to life by one of the best ensembles ever assembled for Virgin Labfest.
I’m going out on a limb with this one but “Lungs” is probably the biggest surprise of the theater season. 9 Works Theatrical’s first straight play — which also marked the professional theater debut of Kapamilya star Jake Cuenca — is an affecting, millennial look at relationships, parenthood and the environment, refreshingly staged and designed unlike any other play this year.
10 BEST PERFOMANCES FOR 2018
1. Skyzx Labastilla, “Ang Dalagita’y ‘Sang Bagay na Di-Buo”
It takes great courage to take on this challenging part (20-plus characters, actually) in a nearly two-hour without intermission one-woman play. But it takes an even greater talent to actually pull it off and Labastilla certainly did in an astonishingly precise masterclass of a performance that’s emotionally draining yet fascinating to watch at the same time.
2. Stella Canete-Mendoza, “Dekada 70”
Canete-Mendoza gives a career-defining performance as a woman struggling to find her place amid the confusion and violence of military rule. It is her character’s journey that makes “Dekada 70” such a rich emotional experience and Canete-Mendoza’s nuanced but calm performance is that rational call to action that we need at this time.
3. Aicelle Santos, “Himala”
As Elsa, Santos gave a stunning performance and made this memorable character, played by movie legend Nora Aunor in that iconic 1981 movie, totally her own. Her powerful voice was in full display, hitting those punishing high notes, but also showing tremendous technique and control.
4. Sherry Lara, “Night Mother”
Lara had the more difficult part as the pained mother (Eugene Domingo plays her daughter), who goes through a gamut of emotions and brings the audience along with her because like her, they are also trying to understand why someone they love -- or anyone for that matter -- would want to kill themselves.
5. Marco Viana, “Ang Pag-uusig”
When Tanghalang Pilipino first staged “Ang Pag-uusig” in 2017, I’ve always wondered why Viana wasn’t cast as John Proctor. While JV Ibesate certainly did not disappoint in the coveted role, Viana’s astonishingly moving portrayal was undoubtedly the best performance by an actor last year.
6. Gab Pangilinan, “Sideshow” and “Mula Sa Buwan”
Long cast in ensemble roles, Gab Pangilinan is definitely this year’s breakout star with not one, but two star-making turns. In “Sideshow,” she played the more ambitious and strong-willed sister yet stayed fully in step with her conjoined twin in those delightful musical numbers. In “Mula Sa Buwan,” we get to hear her melodious soprano and get enchanted once more with her magnetic stage presence.
7. Shamaine Centenera-Buencamino, “The Kundiman Party”
“The Kundiman Party” may have had one of the tightest ensembles for the season but Centenera-Buencamino looms large over this winning group like a true “maestra.” But it’s more than just her formidable stage presence as she gave a beautifully textured performance laced with humor but always classy and elegant.
8. Sheila Francisco, “Ang Huling El Bimbo” and “A Doll’s House Part 2”
She has always been a magnetic stage presence but in 2018 we were reminded of just how enormous her talent really is. She provided the much-needed warmth in the dark “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” and in “A Doll’s House Part 2,” she was the uncomplicated voice of reason, bravely fighting for her long-held beliefs amid a more liberal feminist view.
9. Boo Gabunada, “Mula Sa Buwan” and “Ang Huling El Bimbo”/Nicco Manalo, “Mula Sa Buwan”
A big chunk of the credit for the success of “Mula Sa Buwan” should go to these two wonderful actors who brought loads of passion, charm and “angas.” Despite having to don a prosthetic nose, their vivid facial expressions and overall bearing betray the deep-seated feelings that have been kept hidden. The final soliloquy in beautiful Filipino hits hard and lingers long after the curtain call.
10. Joanna Ampil, “Waitress”
Fresh from her award-winning movie turn in “Ang Larawan,” West End star Ampil confidently takes on Sara Bareilles’ tricky musical runs like those in “What Baking Can Do,” and stuns in the dramatic 11 o'clock number “She Used to Mine” — probably the best single female vocal performance in a musical for the whole season.
Honorable mentions: Brian Sy (“Desaparesidos”), Jon Abella (“Dekada '70”), Frances Makil-Ignacio (“The Kundiman Party” and “The Dressing Room”), Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo (“A Doll’s House Part 2”), Tanya Manalang (“Ang Huling El Bimbo” and “All Out of Love”), Kakki Teodoro (“Himala”), Jobim Javier (“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO”)
CREATIVE AND TECHNICAL
Best Play (Original, Adaptation or Translation): Floy Quintos, “The Kundiman Party”
Honorable mentions: Ian Lomongo (“Night Mother”), Layeta Bucoy (“Sa Isang Tingin”), Maki dela Rosa (“Labor Room”), Guelan Varela-Luarca (“Desaparesidos”), Dustin Celestino (“Mga Eksena sa Buhay ng Kontrabida”)
Best Book (Original, Adaptation or Translation): Pat Valera, “Dekada '70”
Honoable mentions: Ricky Lee (“Himala”), Dennis C. Teodosio (“Geegee at Waterina”), Layeta Bucoy (“Balag at Angud”), Robbie Guevara (“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO”)
Best Direction: Ed Lacson Jr, “Himala”
Honorable mentions: Dexter Martinez Santos (“Ang Huling El Bimbo” and “The Kundiman Party”), Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan (“Lungs”), Pat Valera (“Dekada '70”), Guelan Varela-Luarca (“Desaparesidos”), Bobby Garcia (“Waitress”)
Best Score: Matthew Chang, “Dekada '70”
Honorable mentions: William Elvin Manzano (“Mula Sa Buwan),” Ejay Yatco and Jef Flores (“Ding, Ang Bato”), Von de Guzman (“Binondo”), Dodjie Fernandez and Upeng Fernandez (“Balag at Angud”), Vincent de Jesus (“Himala”)
Best Musical Direction: Myke Salomon, “Ang Huling El Bimbo”
Honorable mentions: TJ Ramos (“Mula Sa Buwan”), Vincent de Jesus (“Himala”), Dana Marquez (“Dekada '70”), Stephen Amos (“All Out of Love”)
Best Choreography: Denisa Reyes and Ernest Mandap, “Ding, Ang Bato”
Honorable mentions: Cecile Martinez (“Sideshow”), Dexter Martinez Santos (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”), PJ Rebullida (“Eto Na! Musikal nAPO”), JM Cabling (“Mula Sa Buwan”), Yvette Lee (“All Out of Love”)
Best Set Design: Ben Padero, “Night Mother”
Honorable mentions: Mitoy Sta. Ana (“The Kundiman Party”), Ed Lacson Jr. (“Himala”), Gino Gonzales (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”), Joey Mendoza (“Silent Sky”), Toym Imao (“Balag at Angud”), Marco Viana (“Nang Dalawin ng Pag-ibig si Juan Tamad”), Jodee Aguillon (“Lungs”)
Best Lighting Design: Monino Duque, “Ang Huling El Bimbo”
Honorable mentions: John Batalla (“Silent Sky”), Barbie Tan Tiongco (“Ang Dalagita’y ‘Sang Bagay na Di-Buo” and “Himala”), Jonjon Villareal (“Sideshow”), Miggy Panganiban (“Lungs”)
Best Sound Design: Arvy Dimaculangan, “Desaparesidos”
Honorable mention: Teresa Barrozo (“Marisol”), Josh Millican (“Waitress”), Rards Corpus (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”), Christo A. Davis (“All Out of Love”)
Best Costume Design: Odelon Simpaco, “Sideshow”
Honorable mention: Eric Pineda (“M Butterfly” and “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO”), Bonsai Cielo (“Mula sa Buwan”), Marco Viana (“Nang Dalawin ng Pag-ibig si Juan Tamad”)