First performed in 1902, Severino Reyes' Tagalog zarzuela "Walang Sugat" told about the love story between Tenyong and Julia set during the Philippine Revolution of 1896, with music by Fulgencio Tolentino. The play was revived in 1971 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Mike Velarde Jr. and Constancio de Guzman composed new music to augment Tolentino's original music which got lost. This music is still used in revivals since then.
PETA's "Walang Aray," written by Rody Vera with music and songs by Vince Lim, is a musical-comedy spoof of "Walang Sugat." Julia was a famous sarsuela performer and Tenyong was her love. Julia kept their affair a secret from her demanding mother Juana, who wanted her to marry Miguel, the son of Don Tadeo. When the abuse of clergy led by Padre Alfaro led to his parents' deaths, a furious Tenyong decided to leave town and join the rebels.
Despite the play being set during the Philippine Revolution, the libretto used mostly Tagalog, English, Taglish and a smattering of Spanish. Vera's script was also peppered with several anachronistic pop culture references from today, from gayspeak lingo to TikTok dance steps to political jargon to "Maria Clara at Ibarra." The styles of Lim's eclectic music and songs went from the kundiman to rock to rap to current pop. These modern touches updated the story and humor of "Walang Aray," especially for Gen Z audiences it wants to attract.
Director Ian Segarra put together a solid show. The technical crew -- Julio Garcia's production design, David Esguerra's lights, Happy Constantino's sounds, Gio Gahol's choreography -- all contributed majorly to the slapstick fun and the romantic atmosphere of the show. However, the most visually-striking work has to be Jaylo Conanan's collection of costumes for this show, which consisted of fancy brightly-colored formal wear for rich folk, glittering stage wear for the theater performers, and peasant chic for the poor folk.
The PETA stable of actors -- Jarred Jaicten (as Julia's rich suitor Miguel), Kiki Baento and Carlon Matobato (as Julia's househelp Monica and Lucas), the gloriously funny Neomi Gonzales (as Julia's mother Juana), Gie Onida (as Miguel's father Tadeo), Johnnie Moran (as the slimy Fr. Alfaro), the hardworking ensemble playing multiple roles (with Gerard Dy and Tom Bienvenida as the comic standouts) -- were all engaging all-around entertainers, fully reveling in the outlandish, over-the-top comedic spirit this play possessed.
Friday's show was the opening night gala. However, I was also able to watch a sneak preview staged for the press last November. So, by now I have seen two out of the three sets of actors who had been cast to play the lead roles of Julia and Tenyong. They are: TV and movie stars Alexa Ilacad and KD Estrada on opening night, and theater veterans Marynor Madamesila and Gio Gahol during the preview. Hoping to still get the chance to watch the third pair in action -- Shaira Opsimar and Jon Abella.
The pair of Gahol and Madamesila were very good individually, as actors and singers. The ever-consistent Gahol in particular was an excellent Tenyong. Madamesila shone in her first lead role in a major theater production. However, their chemistry as a couple was not instant, and only gelled later in the first act as they spent more time together onstage. But again, this was only their very first show together on a sneak preview that I watched last year, so there is more time during this run for them to work on this partnership.
Playing leads right off the bat in their theater debuts, Estada and Ilacad had clear and effortless chemistry. Barely out of his teens, Estrada had strong stage presence and cut a dashing leading man figure. His singing style now may be more suited for pop than for theater, but that can still develop with more experience. With her patrician beauty and unmistakable star quality, Ilacad was a radiant natural as the feisty Julia. Her ability to sing the challenging variety of Julia's songs which ranged from ballads to rap was an impressive revelation.
This new partnership between PETA and ABS-CBN Star Magic was a stroke of genius, both in terms of artist talent development and for the marketing of theater as mass entertainment. Not to diminish the quirky charms of our theater actors, but it cannot be denied that there was something more thrilling about watching younger, popular TV and film actors and love teams, especially for the Gen Z market who are may just be watching their very first theater show. Let these film stars draw them in to discover the many wonders the world of theater holds.
"Walang Aray" runs from February 17 to May 14 at the PETA Theater Center in Quezon City.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."