MANILA – Tanghalang Pilipino stage adaptation of the Ilocano epic “Lam-Ang” is the last major theater production for 2019, providing a perfect ending to a year dominated by original Filipino musicals.
This year saw re-runs of last year’s well-received “Himala,” “Ang Huling El Bimbo,” and “Eto Na! Musikal nAPO!” plus another serving of the phenomenal “Rak of Aegis,” as well as “Mabining Mandirigma” with Monique Wilson in the title role. PETA debuted its latest advocacy production “Charot” ahead of last May’s elections, and even Repertory Philippines took a break from its usual Broadway fare and brought back its original musical “Miong” and also debuted a new work “The Quest for the Adarna.”
TP’s “Lam-Ang” had its root at the University of the Philippines, where it was first presented as a thesis production of musician-playwright Jen Darlene Torres, and directed by Fitz Edward Torres Bitana – both of whom are involved in this production, which opened on December 6. TP veteran Marco Viana co-directs with Bitana, while playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc, was brought in to create a new book using Torres's original lyrics and music.
The result is a mesmerizing musical that pays tribute to the rich culture of the north, epic in scope -- it runs for three hours – yet intimate at the same time.
As a nod to the oral tradition that had shaped the “Lam-Ang” story, the musical opens – and ends -- with the haunting and emotive chants of Tex Ordonez-De Leon as Baglan, who acts as the musical’s chief story-teller.
The main set, designed by Viana, is a stylized rendering of the traditional Ilocano loom, with ramps made of bamboo, while dried leaves are strewn throughout the stage of the Little Theater of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The minimal lines give the production a modern, minimalist elegance without losing the local, earthy flavor that “Lam-Ang” seeks to evoke.
This winning mixture was also carried out in the music arranged by TJ Ramos that fuses the ethnic elements of Torres’s score with chill and ambient stylings to create a hypnotic sound that helped set the mood and propel the story, coupled with JM Cabling's demanding choreography.
TP aimed to celebrate the rich, pre-Hispanic culture of the Philippines such that this version was stripped of the dons and donyas that students might be more familiar with. The basic premise, however, was retained, starting with the back story of Lam-Ang’s father who goes off to battle and is killed, leaving behind his pregnant wife. Lam-Ang is a natural born warrior, who eventually discovers the fate of his father and quickly seeks to avenge his death.
“Lam-Ang,” at least in this version, starts off as a cautionary tale of hubris and lust for power, but ultimately our hero finds redemption in love, when he meets his match in the fierce Kannoyan in his quest to conquer her land of Kalanutian.
In his first lead role in a musical, JC Santos is an energetic hero, who can play arrogant without losing the charisma that made him an in-demand leading man in millennial movie romances. Santos, whose acting roots are in theater, fully commits to the physical demands of the role and comes across as believable.
But while Santos is the main selling point of “Lam-Ang,” star power abounds in this production. Anna Luna is a refreshing stage presence as the spunky and empowered Kannoyan, while Ordonez-De Leon is the musical’s steady emotional anchor with an expressive face and controlled vocals, who guides us through this journey of cultural discovery.
Paw Castillo, so underrated as the artist Junyee in “Balag at Angud,” displays passionate vocals as the warrior Sumarang, while Hazel Maranan left a strong impression in her role as Lam-Ang’s mother.
Then there is the tandem of Lance Reblando as the chicken Taraok and Ybes Bagadiong as the dog Tangguob, who provide a comic relief reminiscent of Pumbaa and Timon in “The Lion King” that was unexpected yet totally in sync with the overall vision of this production.
In “Lam-Ang,” co-directors Bitana and Viana have created a world that celebrates our roots as a people before colonization, “envisioning local traditions that are being forgotten, ancient customs and lores that are being forgotten, and vestiges of our affluent past that are in danger of disappearing forever.”
It achieves this by mixing rituals and tradition with highly theatrical flourishes, resulting in a kinetic presentation that leaves you spellbound.
Despite the careful research that went into the overall design and story-telling, “Lam-Ang” doesn’t feel like a museum relic and its message remains oddly relevant in this savage period in our history.
Despite his flaws, Lam-Ang, then and now, is the hero we desperately need.
“Lam-Ang” runs until December 15 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.