MANILA -- "Consistently fantastic in everything he does," said Lea Salonga about singer-theater actor Victor Robinson III. She didn't just tweet it but wrote it in her newspaper column. For a young theater artist who has high regards for his seniors, it's something you cut and frame like plaques and certificates of recognition on the wall.
But even before Salonga's compliment, people who have worked with Robinson in the past 10 years already have only good words for him.
Now call it pure coincidence or destiny, as Robinson celebrates his 10th year in theater, he is back to performing the compositions of Vincent de Jesus. In this year's re-staging of "Himala: Isang Musikal," Robinson plays Pilo, alternating with Sandino Martin.
Exactly 10 years ago, Robinson played Juan Tamad in "Si Juan Tamad, Ang Diablo at Ang Limang Milyong Boto," De Jesus' satirical musical on Philippine elections.
It was staged at the Philippine Educational Theater Association's PETA-Phinma Theater for a limited run from October 13 to 25, 2009 with De Jesus as the Diablo. There was a clamor for a longer run so for PETA's 42nd season final offering, it was re-staged from February 7 to March 7, 2010, about two months before the May 10 presidential elections.
"I can say I had my first professional and lead role experience in PETA's 'Si Juan Tamad, Ang Diyablo at Ang Limang Milyong Boto.' From then on, I've decided to pursue a career in theater. And here I am celebrating my 10th year in the business this year. Yes I, am coming full circle, wrapping up my 10th year with Sir Vincent's musical again," Robinson told ABS-CBN News.
De Jesus was surprised of the coincidence.
"Oo nga 'no? He was only 17 at the time," De Jesus said at the preview night of "Himala." He remembered that despite being a newbie, he and "Juan Tamad" director Phil Noble got him for the titular role.
"Sabi namin ni Phil, baguhan 'to ah. But we got him and trained him. Ang maganda kay Vic, he's a very studious actor. He does his homework. Matalinong bata," De Jesus told ABS-CBN News.
"Even during rehearsals, he's very absorbent. He's a hardworking guy. Ang galing ng work ethic," he added.
"Himala" is the third De Jesus musical that Robinson is doing. Two years after he did “Juan Tamad,” he was back at the PETA-Phinma Theater for the re-staging of “Batang Rizal” in July 2012, directed by Dudz Teraña with musical arrangement and compositions by De Jesus. Although Robinson was already 19 years old, because of his youthful look, he played the lead, 12-year-old Pepito. The musical was written by Ateneo de Manila University professor Christine S. Bellen ("Mga Kwento Ni Lola Basyang"), initially staged in 2007 with the very young Christian Segarra as Pepito.
“It has been toured in schools and other venues in the whole country until 2016. I played Pepito every now and then,” Robinson recalled. He was already in his early 20s then but can still pass for a 12-year-old.
Now for "Himala," De Jesus said they chose Robinson for Pilo despite his boyish looks.
"Himala: Isang Musikal" is an adaptation of the classic film starring superstar Nora Aunor, written by Ricky Lee and directed by the late National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal.
For the musical, Lee served as De Jesus's co-writer of the libretto and lyrics. Directed by Ed Lacson Jr., it is ongoing at the Spotlight Power Mac Theater at Circuit Makati until October 20.
The musical has earned rave reviews.
How Robinson got the role was simple. He was invited to audition by Anna Santamaria of 9 Works Theatrical.
"They were looking for a Pilo, pero parang casual lang. They asked me, 'Free ka ba ng ganitong araw?' I told them, 'Masyado po ata akong bata,'" Robinson recalled.
"Pero gustong gusto kong maging part ng 'Himala' after watching it last year. So I went to audition and una pina-aral sa akin, 'yung Orly, pero mas parang mukha akong totoy. Nakita nina Toff and Sab and they said na parang mas bagay na Pilo," he added, referring to Sab Jose and Toff De Venecia of 9 Works Theatricals and The Sandbox Collective, co-producers of "Himala." Solely played by David Ezra, Orly is the docu filmmaker visiting Barrio Cupang.
PRAISES FOR ROBINSON
The first audition had a panel consisting of De Venecia, Santi and Anna Santamaria and director Lacson. For the final call back, he faced De Jesus and got the nod at once.
Composer-musical arranger-professor Jed Balsamo did the piano accompaniment during Robinson's audition. Balsamo has been audition pianist since "Himala's" first staging at Tanghalang Huseng Batute in 2003 by Tanghalang Pilipino. He was also the sole pianist when it was re-staged in 2004 at the bigger Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, up to its 10th anniversary run at PETA. Now, he serves as music consultant and continues to revise the accompaniment as he turned over the piano performance duties to the next generation of pianists.
"For me, alam na kasi ni Vic ang (strength ng) boses niya. And with this kind of role, ang singing ay very demanding. Kahit na ipag-five shows mo siya, may boses pa rin siya kasi he knows how to take care of his voice. 'Yun ang security factor kay Vic. And may nakita rin si Ed (Lacson) na nuances kaya 'yun ang naging decision to go with Vic. And besides, it's high time for Vic to move into more challenging roles," Balsamo said.
He added each auditionee had a scene with Neomi Gonzales, who plays Pilo's ill-fated lover Chayong.
"Number one 'yung singing. When we audition sa Spotlight, maganda ang tapon ng boses ni Vic sa stage. Second and most important, when we pair them up with Neomi, dapat may chemistry. Maraming nag-audition pero important 'yung chemistry," Lacson said.
"Well, he's not that tall and his face is eternally young. He also got this effervescent smile. But we felt it's time for adult roles na because he's aged na. When he auditioned, madaming nag-qualify pero 'yung vocal range ni Vic sets him apart from the rest. Ako as composer and musical director, I knew he's our Pilo," added De Jesus.
"And kung full circle talaga, he's worked din with Ejay Yatco in 'Sa Wakas," De Jesus noted. Yatco was musical director of "Sa Wakas." For this year's "Himala," he is assistant musical director and does the piano accompaniment alternating with Van Quiaong.
Robinson also felt very much at home at the Spotlight theater, in a literal sense, because in the first half of 2018, he played Topper, the male lead in the final run of "Sa Wakas."
The musical paid tribute to the songs of the defunct group Sugarfree and its lead singer-composer Ebe Dancel.
Since it had its debut run in 2013, Robinson has remained the charming Topper with the singing voice that could reach the stratosphere.
Besides the fact that he can act, he also has the same vocal range as Dancel.
"Victor pretty much had the same range as Ebe Dancel, and by the end of the first run, some more!" said Andrei Nikolai Pamintuan, director and co-writer of the hit "Sa Wakas."
"He could reach the notes naturally without a struggle. Does he have the most beautiful voice among the Toppers? I think that’s relative naman. I also love Pepe’s voice and Fred Lo also had some strengths. I do think that Victor has one of the most beautiful voices in Philippine theater now that’s for sure," Pamintuan said. Pepe Herrera and Fred Lo also essayed the coveted role.
Going back to the Spotlight theater is like another homecoming for Robinson.
"Medyo madami akong happy memories sa Circuit noong ginawa ang 'Sa Wakas,' and now I am making new memories again with the cast of 'Himala'," Robinson said.
“For Pilo, I had to look older. This is the first time I’m growing some facial hair at mukhang may tumutubo naman. Nag-enroll din ako sa gym to gain some muscle. Naks! But more than the physicality, it’s the acting that will matter most, so I had to do extra effort studying my script, researching and rehearsing for the role.”
YOUNG EMMAN TO PILO
The audition, the final call back and cast announcement all happened while he was doing three-weekend run of "Ang Huling El Bimbo" last May. It can be recalled that for this re-staging, he had been tasked to take over the role of Young Emman, one of the male protagonists in the rock musical that used the songs of the Eraserheads.
In its first run in 2018, he was part of the ensemble but had his moment doing a duet with lead character Joy. He played the uptight cadet officer Andre Antonio, introduced earlier in the musical as Joy's boyfriend who eventually breaks up with her.
In a previous online conversation with Robinson, we asked him which was more challenging, Sugarfree's songs or the Eraserheads'?
"Eraserheads songs are as poetic and heartfelt but its Ebe Dancel's songs that are way more challenging to sing! In 'Sa Wakas' I had to sing around 20 Sugarfree songs in Ebe Dancel's range with only the 15-minute intermission as my break," he said.
"Eraserheads songs, on the other hand, as used in 'Ang Huling El Bimbo,' were hard to learn as they were rearranged into new contexts by the brilliant Myke Salomon. Challenging yet very fun to perform with my castmates, especially while doing the big dance numbers. But, of course, it was the ‘Tama Ka/Ligaya’ mash-up that really stood out for me because I had the task to sing that very challenging yet oh so beautiful duet,” Robinson added.
Now singing De Jesus' compositions, he said, “It feels so great to have come full circle in the first 10 years of my theater career and with no less than doing a Vincent de Jesus musical again. I am so honored to be singing the heart-wrenching songs of Sir Vince again. ‘Himala’ I believe is the most brilliant Filipino musical ever made and I am blessed to be doing this show on my 10th year.”
Like his character Emman, Robinson is also a probinsyano -- he grew up in Iloilo -- and moved to Manila for college. He graduated with an AB Communications degree from the Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City with a full scholarship.
"I'm an only child. We are not that well-off so I really had to fight my way up. My mom was a housewife and my Dad was a towtruck driver," Robinson said.
"I started singing in our living room when I was three. I discovered that I can really sing when they made me lead the responsorial Psalm during my first communion.
"I had to be on top of my class to get scholarships, endured going to school with just enough baon (even less), fought my way to get awards and recognitions to be able to get into a good school for college all for the ultimate goal of getting a better life for my family," Robinson recalled.
"I used to join singing competitions. I think that's where I got my confidence to perform. I experienced school-based and inter-barangay competitions. I got exposed to theater when I did Ateneo de Iloilo's version of Onofre Pagsanghan's 'Sa Kaharian ng Araw' back in sophomore high school because they simply needed someone who can sing. But I think the theater bug bit me on my freshman year in college when I joined BlueRep," he added.
"After college, I needed to prove something because I became the bread winner of the family. I pressured myself to get a job and excelled in it to become financially stable. But I quit my corporate job to pursue my passion, which is acting," he added.
There are highs and lows in Robinson's life. Like any other actor, he's experienced not getting paid on time or not at all for a job well done.
"Well, when things do not go as planned, God has a way of turning things around to your benefit. Patience is key. In a world full of injustices left and right, justice will be served because karma has a way of getting back at you."
Outside the theater, Robinson is very much visible in TV commercials, from brandy to sardines, and telenovellas.
Kapamilya viewers may remember him as Rommel in the 2014 soap opera, "Be Careful With My Heart" and one of the Moonchasers, a group of vampire killers, in "La Luna Sangre." He was also Makoy, the friend of Zanjoe Marudo’s character and “ninong” of child actress Nayomi Ramos character in the 2017 hit, "My Dear Heart."
Now he plays David dela Cuesta, son of Luciano, a villain role played by Cris Villanueva in the ongoing primetime hit, “The Killer Bride,” which is top-billed by Maja Salvador.
"All under ABS-CBN. I even hosted a children's show called Mathdali," he said.
He has also tried films, doing some bit roles for Cinemalaya's “Dagitab” and QCinema's "Kapatiran."
His hopes and dreams for his 10th year?
"Don’t get me wrong, I love theater but I think it is the film industry where I want to explore more in the future. I've done minor roles, one liner, two liner, pero gusto ko 'yung merong arc 'yung character."
But, of course, his voice will be a major factor. Asked what type of film, he said if given the chance he'd do something like "Larawan.”
"I’ve been looking for opportunites in the film industry. After ‘Himala,’ I might start my expedition to the world of Filipino movies. I just want to put it out there for the universe to see. Please contact Cornerstone,” he said, laughing, giving the name of his management company.
With his ideal work ethic and talent honed by time and the right people, Robinson won't need a miracle to achieve his dream roles. He is miracle personified, the real-life super boy of Philippine theater.