Theater review: Met's 'Lapulapu' musical makes history

Fred Hawson

Posted at Oct 25 2021 12:31 PM

Armand Ferrer as Lapulapu. Rhon Paolo Velarde, NCCA
Armand Ferrer as Lapulapu. Rhon Paolo Velarde, NCCA

After being closed down 25 years ago, the Metropolitan Theater was restored, renovated and reopened this year. Its first major stage production is "Lapulapu, Ang Datu ng Mactan" with book and lyrics written by Nicolas Pichay, Jr, with music and arrangements by Krina Cayabyab, and directed by Dexter Santos. 

This special show was produced by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the National Historical Commission of the Philippines for the Quincentennial Celebration of the Philippines and the Year of the Filipino Pre-colonial Ancestors. It was streamed for free on FB Live on October 24 at 6 p.m.

Even if they tackled the same events in Philippine history and employed the fusion of similar musical genres, it is important to note that this is NOT the same show as the “LapuLapu: The Neo-Classic-Ethno-Rock Opera” with music by Jose “Toto” Gentica V and libretto by Victor Henry Tejero staged at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in 1997 directed by the late Behn Cervantes with sets designed by National Artist Salvador Bernal, which was recently streamed for free on YouTube last Independence Day 2021.

The musical begins with the Babaylan (Natasha Cabrera) chanting the story of two local leaders, Humabon (Red Nuestro) and Lapulapu (Arman Ferrer). Their villages were already prosperous and productive even before the ships of weary white foreigners led by Ferdinand Magellan (Andre Tiangco) arrived at their shores. Among his crew were his navigator Juan Sebastian Elcano (Matthew Barbers), chronicler Antonio Pigafetta (Al Gatmaitan) and a Malay slave Enrique (Paw Castillo) who served as their interpreter. 

The set was simple, just a single elevated ramp coming from the right side of the stage going horizontally towards the left, then curving forward to end at center stage. Behind it were three giant LED video screens upon which were projecting the backdrops designed by GA Fallarme. The dramatic lighting was designed by Dennis Marasigan. The elaborate costumes for the characters (both natives and Spaniards) were supplied by Gino Gonzales, with Norman Penaflorida completing the whole look with his hair, makeup and tattoo designs.

While we know the story of Lapulapu's continued defiant resistance to welcome the foreigners and be converted into their religion, like Humabon was, this show also had a couple of scenes I never learned of in school. Magellan was shown trying to convince Humabon to intercede by offering him the position of overall sultan of all the local villages. When Humabon did approach Lapulapu to convince him to accept the foreigners, this resulted in a confrontation where both men were aiming their bows and arrows at each other. 

The final face-off between Lapulapu and Magellan was not a direct one-on-one sword duel. The way the historic moment was staged was with both personalities away from each other. While Lapulapu on the ramp wielding his sword with heroic fervor, Magellan was suddenly seen to begin writhing to death on cue downstage among the villagers. Some may be expecting a more definitive hacking or beheading scene, but the graphic violence or even the exact identity of the killer was not really the point. It was a collective effort by Filipinos. 

After Lapulapu sang his unexpected valedictory kundiman "Bituing Marikit," Elcano and Enrique related how they completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. Three babaylans (Cabrera, Cara Barredo and Marynor Madamesila) prophesied about the country's future, as photos of heroes from Bonifacio and Mabini to current COVID-19 frontliners flashed on the screens. As the finale, the scene shifted to the present times, as cast members led by Ferrer (as pedicab driver) and Cabrera (as nurse) sing an anthem of heroism by regular citizens. 

NCCA Arts Ambassador Catriona Gray then announced the grand inauguration of the Met on December 10, 2021. 

Then we see the cast again in their historical costumes to reprise the final song about "Bayaning Pilipino sa Makabagong Panahon." 

I had some difficulty getting into the show at first because I had difficulty understanding the lyrics being sung by the Babaylan in her opening scene, not even recognizing if she was chanting in Filipino. It was also not too easy to comprehend all the words being sung or spoken at certain parts of the show because of the sound quality via FB Live, so I had to use context to get the point of the scene. It would have helped if this stream also had subtitles. 

That point aside, the singing vocals of cast, particularly the powerful tenor voices of Ferrer, Gatmaitan and Ivan Nery (as the Pope Alexander XI) were strong and stellar. Furthermore, the Herculean effort for being able to stage this major musical production that fused opera and musical theater with ethnic music and kundiman within only two weeks of locked-in general rehearsals deserves utmost commendation to the cast and crew.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."