MANILA -- Local theatergoers have been blessed with a great year of original Filipino musicals. "Guadalupe: The Musical," about the miracles of Guadalupe and Saint Juan Diego, is the latest addition to this remarkable list of original works.
After a short overture, the musical opens with vignettes showing pre-Hispanic Aztec culture including their pagan rites and human sacrifice that led to the eventual invasion by the Spanish conquistadores.
Cut to the present day where we join a tour group going through the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in Mexico.
The story then begins in earnest in 1531. It is a time of upheaval as the Spanish are trying to solidify their foothold in the Americas. There is unrest that is about to blow up into a full war as Aztecs, who believe in the old, and the newly converted Mexicans live with unease and suspicion.
This is as much the story of Archbishop Juan De Zumarraga, then head of the Spanish clergy in Mexico in 1531, and Juan Diego, the new Catholic convert to whom the Lady of Guadalupe appeared to on Tepeyac Hill. Juan Diego was tasked by the apparition of the Virgin May to build a church on the hill. Diego then meets with a doubting Zumarraga who has problems of his own, hearing rumblings of a bloody war from the natives.
Complicating matters is Governor Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán and his aide, Vargas, who have launched their own bloodthirsty crusade to purge the natives of those subversive to Spain. The dastardly duo uses Zumarraga’s niece Clara, and her would-be paramour Luis, as their pawns to blackmail the archbishop.
Through this all, Zumarraga sees Diego’s apparition as a symbol for Spaniards, Mexicans, and Aztecs alike to unite Mexico.
Lorenz Martinez, known for his laugh-out-loud moments in comedies, shares the main spotlight with theater legend Cocoy Laurel.
Laurel has been delivering standing-ovation worthy performances since the 1980s but has been sorely missed by theatergoers. In "Guadalupe," he makes a triumphant return to the stage. His Juan Diego is simple-minded and vulnerable. However, when Laurel sings his first note from “The Lady on The Hill,” he just transforms into a man who’s committed to see the Virgin Mary’s task all the way through.
Martinez does 180-degree portraying Zumarraga as a conflicted man with strength and gentleness. Credit to writers as they still give Martinez a few degrees of comedic lines that he delivers with such deadpan effectiveness.
Kuya Manzano plays the villainous Governor of Mexico Nuño. At first, I thought the character was played with a cartoony spin, somewhat like the Dick Dastardly from the old Hanna Barbera cartoons. The sneer, the arrogance, the authoritarian streak eventually came together to make a villain that I could totally despise. So despicable that his eventual comeuppance at the hands of Zummaraga’s cleverness (and Martinez’s one-liner) had the audience applauding and laughing out loud.
Sheila Valderrama-Martinez is radiant in her transformation from ho-hum tour guide to storyteller, and to her eventual heavenly role. A key scene in the musical is where the Virgin Mary appears to Diego. Her voice was tweaked with sound engineering wizardry to produce an out-of-this-world conversation from the heavens. Valderrama-Martinez was still able to evoke emotion even underneath all the reverb.
Arman Ferrer continually establishes himself as one of the go-to romantic leads in Philippine theater today with his portrayal of Luis opposite the charming Clara of newcomer Chaye Mogg.
An unrecognizable Onyl Torres is Diego’s sick uncle Juan Bernardino, who upon being blessed of first miracle of Guadalupe, makes a comic transformation.
Fight choreographer Miguel Vasquez seemed underused with barely a speaking line, letting gestures, scowls, and his rapiers do the talking. When he does finally erupt in a volley of Spanish curses during his fall with Nuño made the duo’s fall much more satisfying.
Joel Trinidad was given the epic task to write the book for "Guadalupe." There was no theatrical production based on this particular story, not even in Mexico where the events happened. As with events in that period, there is scant information about the people in that era.
I thought that opening the musical with the tour group at present day was a clever way to ground the musical.
"Guadalupe" is entertaining without being preachy and stuck with history. Trinidad weaves a tale that can be enjoyed and appreciated by theatergoers of any denomination.
I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive about the music during the preview held months ago thinking it would be "Man of La Mancha" meets morose choir music. I am glad to say that EJ Yatco and Trinidad proved these misconceptions wrong.
Yatco describes the music as “Coco” meets “The Prince of Egypt.” The music moves from poignant to epic with Aztec jungle beats and winds, and Spanish guitars. Yatco’s orchestration and Trinidad’s sometimes complicated rhymes come together in a Disney Broadway vibe. My wife and I were humming parts of “On A Day Like Today” and “Fire in the Sky” days after we left the theater. The music and songs pass the Broadway “catchiness and recall” test.
The orchestration combined with a talented ensemble produced some heavenly, ethereal moments that just increased the dramatic impact of certain scenes in the musical. I do hope that the cast recording become available to the public soon.
"Guadalupe" director Baby Barredo is blessed with a truly talented cast and her years in the theater business showed through how polished this first-rate production is.
Set designer Mio Infante and lighting designer John Batalla created a set that incorporates a lot of Aztec angular shapes. Pieces of the set fly in from the ceiling and convey a sense of scale that somehow filled up the enormous stage of the Meralco Theater. Smaller portions of the set were used to focus on the more intimate scenes. Partnering the sets with the gorgeously colorful costumes of Celia Diaz-Laurel did transport me from the theater to Mexico in the 1530s.
Just nitpicking but I thought that the play could use a little more conflict and stakes. While the duo of Clara and Luis added some stakes, there could have been more. For example, some exposition of the impending Aztec-Mexican-Spanish war could have raised the stakes for Zummaraga and could have showed how much more villainous Nuño and Vargas were. These horrific events were alluded to, but it was more a case of “tell, not show.”
I also thought that the two acts were bit imbalanced with Act 1 being more packed than Act 2 with the concluding events just zipping by. While the central three miracles were treated with due reverence, it felt a little rushed.
However, the reveal of Diego’s tilma, a cloak made of cactus fiber, imprinted with an image of the Lady of Guadalupe (painted by Cocoy Laurel) was the moment of show, particularly because of Martinez’s change from disbelief to adoration, and Laurel’s beatific smile as he unfurled the tilma.
Producer Julie Borromeo has shared that the group that’s taking care of Juan Diego’s tilma has already expressed interest in bringing the musical to Mexico. Others have suggested loftier destinations such as Broadway.
With a bit more polish, "Guadalupe" will definitely go places.
“Guadalupe: The Musical” runs until October 14 at the Meralco Theater with 8 p.m. shows on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and 3 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays.