MANILA -- A little more than a month after Disney’s “The Lion King” concludes its successful Manila tour on May 27 at the Theatre in Solaire, the all-Filipino original musical “Binondo” will be open for a very limited two-weekend staging, from June 29 to July 8, or a total of 10 shows.
Known for hosting several international touring productions like “Chicago,” “The Sound of Music,” “Wicked,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Les Miserables,” “West Side Story,” and “Sister Act,” the 1,740-seat The Theatre will be the home of an original local musical. While some may argue that it’s Chinese-Filipino or Filipino-Chinese, it definitely has Pinoy written all over it.
The creative team behind “Binondo” is composed of director Joel Lamangan, acclaimed writer Ricky Lee, composer Von de Guzman, choreographer Douglas Nierras and lighting designer Joey Nombres.
The brave producer is Filipino-Chinese actress-businesswoman Rebecca Chuaunsu, who owns and runs a film outfit she named after her, a digital solutions company called Synergy 88 and a talent production firm called FullHouse Asia. She is called doctor by many because she holds Ph. D. in Communications and a Master’s Degree in Theater Arts, both from University of the Philippines in Diliman.
Although it’s her first time to produce a theatrical piece, Chuaunsu is not new to the theater industry. In another interview, she noted that Lamangan was her mentor at the Philippine Educational Theater Association when she attended an acting workshop in 1976. She has also acted in Repertory Philippines’ production of “The Joy Luck Club” in 2011, directed by Anton Juan.
“Binondo” follows the story of Lily delos Santos, a night club singer in pre-Martial Law Manila. Two men fall for her. There’s Ah Tiong, an academician from Beijing and her childhood friend, Filipino-Chinese Carlos.
The "Tsinoy musical" takes audiences back to the early ‘70s to the mid ‘80s, from Manila’s Chinatown and Mendiola to Shenzhen Harbor and Beijing Labor Camp in mainland China.
Chuaunsu is a second-generation Chinese, her parents having immigrated from China to Manila. She was the one who thought of the original story that was based on real events. Sometime in 1986, she was brought to China by her parents to trace her roots. There she met a Chinese professor who told her of his experiences in surviving the Cultural Revolution and how he met his lady love.
“For 32 years, I kept the story in my heart, until now,” she said.
More than the love story, she said “Binondo” is also about shedding light on what being Chinese-Filipino means. She added she’s lucky to have Lee and Lamangan on board.
Lee wrote the story with the help of two young playwrights, Eljay Castro Deldoc and Gershom Chua. As for the writing process, Lee and Deldoc fleshed out Chuaunsu’s idea and wrote most of the scenes and lyrics. Chua, being familiar with Chinese traditions in Binondo, contributed in writing some scenes and served like a dramaturg.
Lee said the development of the characters go hand in hand with the development of the plot. For example, he explained the plight of Lily.
“Romantic na romantic si Lily. Habang tumatagal ‘yung kwento natututunan niya na pwede kang magmahal na hindi nawawala 'yung pagkatao mo. And yet minamahal mo pa rin 'yung isa. Na pwedeng niyang buohin 'yung pagkatao niya na hindi kailangang ang bumubuo ay 'yung minamahal nya. So nagproprogress ‘yung mga tingin sa sarili,” Lee said.
“May forever pa rin ang pag-ibig nila. Nagtatagal pa rin ang pag-ibig nila. Natutunan din nila na hindi kinakailangang iisang tao lang ang nasa puso mo. Pwede palang magkaroon ng espasyo na magkaibang klase ng pag ibig na lumulan sa puso mo.
“So nag-progress ang character habang tumatakbo ang kwento ng pag ibig nila at tumatakbo ang kwento ng lipunan. Kasi nag-start noong Martial Law at nag-end noong People Power for a period of 15 years sa China at Pilipinas,” added Lee.
Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Carla Guevara-Laforteza alternate as Lily, while tenors Arman Ferrer and David Ezra, who can be remembered for alternately playing Aguinaldo in Tanghalang Pilipino’s 2016 award-winning musical “Mabining Mandirigma,” will play Ah Tiong. Floyd Tena and Noel Rayos alternate as Carlos.
Asked about her role, Valderrama-Martinez said she auditioned for the role of Lily, a character she learned later she can identify with.
“Lily is very idealistic. I believe in faith and love. She’s very romantic, which is so like me,” she said, laughing. “May forever. I love rom-coms (romantic comedies). And the music helps me get the emotion out.”
Her real-life husband, Lorenz Martinez, is part of the Koro.
Guevara-Laforteza also auditioned and got the role of Lily. She said, “Matagal na po akong hindi gumagawa ng ingenue (character) sa drama. Puro character roles. Na-excite po ako when I found out who the cast (members) are and it’s wonderful to work with direk Joel Lamangan and Tito Doug (Nierras).”
For his part, Ferrer admits that he found it a bit difficult at furst to sing De Guzman’s songs. Ferrer played Julio Madiaga in last year’s “Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag,” which also featured De Guzman’s compositions.
“Mahirap pero masarap kantahin. Napakaganda ng melody. 'Yung feeling ng character nalalagay po nya sa music. Si Sir Von ang dahilan para ma-push po ako sa ‘Maynila’. Ang laki ng utang na loob ko kay Sir Von. Na-enlighten ako at na-inspire,” he said.
Lamangan noted that while he was together with Nierras and Lee in choosing the actors, it was De Guzman’s final approval that matters. “Kasi this is a musical, so Von’s nod, his vote, is the most important,” he said.
De Guzman admitted that it was very hard for him to meld Filipino and Chinese music in a very harmonious way. He tried to give the songs “indigenous Chinese elements.” Besides listening to some Chinese operas, he took a lot of inspiration from Puccini’s “Turandot.” As musical director and scorer, he had worked with the very first “Mano Po” film, which was also directed by Lamangan.
De Guzman holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Musical Theatre Writing from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. Among his original works in musical theater are “Sherwood,” “The Elixir” and “The Wallowhat and the Pinchay” (book and lyrics by Tim Nevits), which was presented in an off-Broadway performance in 1999.
Otto Hernandez handles the production design and also functions as technical director.
The other cast members of “Binondo” are Yela Laurel as Jasmine; Ashlee Factor (Ruby); Ima Castro (Mrs. Dela Rosa); Ana Feleo and Jennifer Villegas (Lourdes); Kay Balajadia and Jennifer Villegas (Mrs. Chua); Dondi Ong (Mr. Chua); Russell Magno (Mr. Zhang) and Elizabeth Chua (Mrs. Zhang).
Playing the Koro are Jim Pebanco, Lorenz Martinez, Khalil Kaimo, Ellrica Laguardia, Rhapsody and Tuesday Vargas. There’s also Jonel Mojica (Ge Lao) Philip Deles and Ivana Billanueva (Swing).
The ensemble includes Carlos Derriada, Cheeno Macaraig, Claire Borja, Daniel Cruz, Dusty Suarez, Janine Tolentino, Joseph Billeza, Joseph Puducay, Julia Chua, Paul Clark, Precious Sementilla, Rence Aviles, Randy Rey, Romcel Brinquiz, Roy Sotero, Ryan Caraan, VJ Cortel, Xander Pineda and Zyruz Imperial.
Lamangan said compared with his previous works, “Binondo” is more fulfilling. “Kasi nabigyan buhay nito ang dream ko na maging singer,” he said in jest. “Imagine kanta, sayaw, arte pinagtagpo sa isang palabas. Hindi madaling gawin.”
As for the character of Lily, he clarified that he isn't referencing Mother Lily Monteverde of Regal Films. She produced all seven “Mano Po” films of which four were directed by Lamangan. As far as he’s aware of it, there are no similarities with the narrative of “Binondo” and all those “Mano Po” films.
“I directed one, three, five and six of ‘Mano Po’ films. Am sure in all of those films walang pagkakatulad. Kung Chinese traditions siyempre may makikita kayo dahil pareho lang naman ang mga religious practices and rituals nila. At saka kilala ko si Mother, kung may similarities, hindi ako tatantanan no’n.”
Chuaunsu said there’s nothing to worry about. Besides being a friend of Monteverde, she acted in “Mano Po 7: Chinoy,” directed by Ian Lorenos. Chuaunsu played the mother of Richard Yap’s characterWilson.
In his review for ABS-CBN News, Fred Hawson made special mention of Chuaunsu’s superb acting. Hawson wrote: “For me, the best performer in the whole film was the incandescent Rebecca Chuaunsu, who played Wilson's mother, Erlinda. I do not think I had seen her act before on TV or other films, but her screen presence here was simply so radiant, outshining her other more famous co-actors. I recognize several strong Chinoy senior ladies I know and love in her effective and moving portrayal of her dignified character and in her delivery of those lines brimming with wisdom. She never became over-melodramatic, which was refreshing.”
In jest, Lamangan added: “Actually I am planning to invite Mother Lily to watch on the last day of performance. Kung may makita man siya na ‘di nya gusto, at least tapos na ang show,”
But seriously as early as now, he said if there’s a producer willing to finance the film adaptation of this musical, he’d gladly direct it. “Magso-shooting sa China, why not?”