Theater review: 'Himala' restores your faith in Filipino theater

Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 10 2018 07:38 PM

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Aicelle Santos is Elsa in this new restaging of 'Himala.' Photo by Jeeves de Veyra

MANILA – Sister companies 9 Works Theatrical and The Sandbox Collective are presenting a Filipino musical for the first time – and what they have produced promises to be a total game-changer for the local theater scene.

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 that made its world premiere in 2003 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Tangahalang Huseng Batute. 9 Works-Sandbox, however, did not just deliver a mere restaging; "Himala: Isang Musikal" could well be the definitive version of this celebrated work about a young barrio lass Elsa, who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary, and becomes a faith healer. 

Working with the same writing team of Ricky Lee, the movie’s original scriptwriter, and composer and lyricist Vincent de Jesus but with a new and young director Ed Lacson Jr. at the helm, 9 Works indeed breaks new ground with “Himala,” which opens on Saturday at Circuit Makati’s Power Mac Center Spotlight. It is by far the group’s most accomplished production – and given the much-deserved raves it received for last year’s “Newsies,” that’s saying a lot.

For the longest time, Philippine theater has been divided into two distinct groups: companies that produce English-language work, mostly Broadway musicals; and those that stage Filipino material. Recent years have seen this division slowly relaxing with many actors and even directors doing both English and Filipino work.

But with “Himala,” 9 Works didn’t just cross the line; it destroyed that division altogether.

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Aicelle Santos as Elsa in this new restaging of 'Himala.' Photo by Jeeves de Veyra

Moreover, 9 Works and Sandbox accomplished this not by employing the usual Broadway pizzazz that it has honed through the years. In fact, it went to the opposite extreme. “Himala” does not feature dancing; and the actors perform without makeup. There are no microphones, with only a piano, played live, serving as musical accompaniment.

Lacson, who also designed the set, made full use of Spotlight’s black box setup. The musical’s marketing communications promised an “immersive experience” and that’s because the entire space was transformed into the fictional Barrio Cupang with the seats, some dressed as nipa huts, strategically arranged to make the audience feel as if they are part of the action. The main performance area then functions like a public plaza and actors make their way in and out through several exits and entrances. While this may seem inconvenient to some, the setup also forces the audience to follow the action.

The intimate setting not just brings the audience face to face with the many issues tackled by this masterpiece from religious hypocrisy to the corruption and greed that feed on the ignorance and the desperation of a town mired in poverty.

Indeed, during the musical’s most riveting moments, the large cast and the audience seemed to meld together to create one human mass, moved by faith or a need to believe during that hair-raising scene that closes Act 1 or plunged into grief and hysteria in the musical’s climax. Such scenes offer more than just theatrical spectacle as they create a unique and powerful experience for the audience, who responded by giving the hard-working cast a thunderous standing ovation at the special preview Friday night. 

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Aicelle Santos and Bituin Escalante in 'Himala.' Photo by Jeeves de Veyra

As Elsa, Aicelle Santos gave a stunning performance and made this iconic character, played by movie legend Nora Aunor, totally her own. For one, she gave Elsa a more youthful vibe. Yet the depth of her characterization was impressive. She clearly captured the character’s ambiguity and darker shades, while maintaining a seemingly innocent façade. At the same time, her powerful voice was in full display, hitting those punishing high notes, but also showing tremendous technique and control of her vocal dynamics. Her dramatic soliloquy “Magpakita Kang Muli,” as she dares the heavens, was utterly heartbreaking, and drew several shouts of ‘bravo.’

Although Elsa is at the center of “Himala,” other key characters also get their own solo numbers and this production boasts of a star-studded supporting cast led by a Bituin Escalante, who gave a restrained yet moving performance as Elsa’s mother. 

David Ezra as the filmmaker Orly once again gets to display his soaring tenor, particularly in his guilt-ridden confession, while Sandino Martin lends a leading man presence in his romantic duet with soprano Neomi Gonzales as the religious Chayong and in his tearful solo “Sino Ka Ba, Elsa.”

Gonzales's fragile characterization also offered a subtle yet telling contrast to Elsa, while Kakki Teodoro gave a remarkably layered and nuanced performance as the prostitute Nimia.

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The cast of 'Himala' at curtain call. Photo by Jeeves de Veyra

These stars also lead one of the strongest ensembles ever assembled as they all bring an entire barrio to life. Moreover, they beautifully harmonized and gave justice to de Jesus’s astonishingly haunting score. 

But this production of “Himala” owes much of its success to the brave vision of Lacson, the young director who has already won raves for his handling of “Games People Play” for Tanghalang Ateneo and the Virgin Labfest favorite “Si Maria Isabella at ang Guryon ng mga Tala.” With “Himala,” he lives up to the early promise he has shown and seals his reputation as one of the more exciting theater artists working today.

The prolonged applause from the preview audience led by Aunor, Lee and some original actors of the Tanghalang Pilipino production and which moved many of the cast to tears at curtain call was not just proof that this big gamble of Lacson, de Jesus, Sandbox and 9 Works paid off.

More importantly, “Himala” heralds a new theater mindset that hopefully would foster more thought-provoking, well-made Filipino work.

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Nora Aunor, Ricky Lee and Vincent de Jesus at the preview of 'Himala.' Photo by Jeeves de Veyra

“Himala” runs until March 4 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati.