Ely Buendia enters the realm of musical theater, again in 2020

Totel V. de Jesus

Posted at Dec 30 2019 04:26 PM | Updated as of Jan 01 2020 10:58 PM

Ely Buendia meets the three main characters of 'Ang Huling El Bimbo" (from left) Boo Gabunada as Young Emman, Reb Atadero as Young Hector and Topper Fabregas as Young Anthony.Photo by Nicky Aureo

Ely Buendia with his acoustic guitar in the CMT scene.Photo by Nicky Aureo courtesy of Day Cabuhat

Ely Buenida does it like Charlie Chaplin in the CMT scene.Photo by Nicky Aureo courtesy of Day Cabuhat

'Hinga lang at pahinga,' Ely Buendia tells actress Carla Guevara-Laforteza, who played the Older Joy in 'Ang Huling El Bimbo.'Photo by Nicky Aureo

Ely Buendia on top of the box-type sedan with Topper Fabregas, Boo Gabunada, Reb Atadero and Tanya Manalang.Photo by Nicky Aureo

Ely Buendia with (from left) Boo Gabunada, Topper Fabregas, Reb Atadero, Tanya Manalang, Carla Laforteza, Gian Magdangal, Jon Santos, and OJ Mariano.Photo by Nicky Aureo

MANILA -- Tickets to "Ely Buendia, A Night At The Theater" were sold out a good three weeks before the one-night-only show held at the Newport Performing Arts Theater of Resorts Wold Manila last December 8. 

Written by Dingdong Novenario and directed by Jamie Wilson, the show successfully melded elements of theater and rock concert, featuring Buendia's own band, actors from the musical "Ang Huling El Bimbo" and back-up musicians from the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra.

It was one of those rare experiences that needed a part two, or three and more. The wait wasn't that long. Two days before Christmas, it was announced that there will be a repeat on February 20, 2020. 

"It took a week for me to process this experience. And what an experience. They say do what scares you and I haven’t been this scared in a while," Buendia wrote in his official Instagram account on December 15.

"This was a leap into the unknown and I would have turned around and went home if it weren’t for the people who stretched their arms out from across the abyss saying 'jump, it’s all right, we’ll catch you!'" Buendia continued, referring to his EB band members composed of Audrey Dionisio on acoustic guitar, Pat Sarabia on drums, Carissa Ramos on bass and Nitoy Adriano on lead guitar. They're the ones backing him up in his shows whenever he performs as a solo act under the name "EB Live" around the country and the world. 

Buendia thanked his managers Day Cabuhat and Diane Ventura; Mickey Jacinto and the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra; the cast members of the musical who became part of the December 8 show -- Gian Magdangal, OJ Mariano, Jon Santos, Carla Guevara-Laforteza, Reb Atadero, Topper Fabregas, Boo Gabunada, Tanya Manalang, Stephen Viñas, Jom Logdat, Kiara Dario, Ray Concepcion, Chino Veguillas, Jim Ferrer and Redday Nuestro -- Novenario, and Wilson "who lent me his dad’s cufflinks and gave me some of his mojo." 

"Oh, last but not the least, thank you to everyone who watched! Mabuhay ang OPM at ang Philippine Theater!" Buendia added. 

Show recap

For those who missed it, here are some samples of how Buendia made that leap into the unknown.

The show opened with a regular concert format. The stage had Buendia in his usual dapper suit, this time colored gray and not a regular tie but an elegant Western bowtie. The same formal getup that reminded us of The Beatles' outfit in the '60s was also worn by veteran axeman Nitoy Adriano and Buendia's intriguingly all-female back-up band. 

They started with the last few ascending chords leading to the climax of "Harana" from the 1997 five-track EP "Bananatype" followed by "Pop Machine" from "Natin 99" album.

From nowhere there was Punk Zappa, played by actor-choreographer Stephen Viñas, shouting "Ely! Ely! El Bimbo naman d'yan!" jumping and shouting at the front row in the audience area, like a deranged fan. 

The original character was from the album "Circus" and the alter-ego of Eraserheads lead guitarist Markus Adoro. His "soliloquy" was inserted like album fillers, delivering in rapid-fire, stream of consciousness satirical critique of the '90s alternative music scene. 

In the musical, Zappa's character only appeared as cameo in the police station scene in Act 1 during the first run in 2018. The character was entirely written out in the three re-runs this year. In the December 8 show, Zappa was the rowdy clown before and after Buendia's entry to the world of lead characters Emman, Anthony, Hector and Joy, and his heckling served as an appetizer for the theatrical part of the show. 

But then the band then returned to regular programming with "Julie Tearjerky" from the 1998 compilation album "Aloha Milkyway," followed by "Superproxy" from the 1995 album "Cutterpillow" and "Shake Yer Head" from "Ultraelectromagneticpop!"

Ely meets 'El Bimbo'

Then Buendia and his bandmates stepped back, laid down their guitars as some props were brought at the center of the stage. The other group of musicians took over, playing the opening chords for "Waiting for the Bus," as arranged by Myke Salomon for the musical.

Enter Mariano playing older Emman, Magdangal playing middle-aged Hector and Santos as Anthony with their younger counterparts, respectively Gabunada, Atadero and Fabregas coming from both sides of the stage, followed by the ensemble. 

Next was the pledging scene at Kalayaan Hall, where Hector, Emman and Anthony meet for the first time as roommates and where they made a pact to be "the masters of their fate" -- but this time with Buendia. 

The succeeding scenes could be considered Buendia's unofficial debut as theater actor. Those who were familiar with Buendia's wholesome sense of humor would know how spontaneous he could be in throwing punchlines, be it during live interviews or recorded on TV. 

When he joined the marching cadets during the "Pare Ko" scene, we didn't see Buendia the musician but a comic actor. He was hilarious and awkward at the same time, holding his acoustic guitar, while the rest of the CMT cadets held wooden rifles. 

Going off-script

Just as everybody was laughing and having a good time, we are introduced to the musical's saddest character, ironically named Joy, played magnificently by Carla Guevara-Laforteza, who sings the first four lines of "Kilala," from the album "Natin 99," which echoed the character's detachment from friends and loved ones. 

Guevara-Laforteza was joined by Manalang, who played the Young Joy, as they segue to "Balikbayan Box." The mashup was a goosebump-inducing moment when Buendia joined the two women in singing the line: "Umuwi na tayo dahil wala nang sense ang ating mundo." 

Holding hands, the two Joys made their exit and you can't help but magnify the tragedies that befell the character. 

At this point, Buendia stood up, went to the center of the stage and talked to the audience, saving the show's momentum. 

"Minsan, hinga lang at pahinga ang kailangan. We make our life's choices. Huwag na balikan at i-reset na parang family computer," he said.

The original script supposedly ended there but Buendia expounded the last part, adding, "Or (parang) PS4, Xbox, Nintendo Switch, Sega Saturn, Cosmo Genesis....the point is...."

This punchline broke the icy, lachrymal mood. Buendia was improvising and people sensed it. After a pause, he spoke the original dialogue from the script as segue to the next song: "Tuloy lang ang buhay. Parang road trip lang."

Major highlight

The bassline from the intro of "Overdrive" was heard from the band. There were "oohhs" from our seats nearby and in a regular concert setup, Buendia brought us back to "reality," singing the controversial hit from "Cutterpillow."
For those who haven't seen the show but have been bombarded by friends with social media posts showing photos of Buendia standing on the roof of a 1990s Lancer box-type sedan, this scene was what many considered the major highlight, with Buendia singing "Alapaap" with Gabunada, Atadero, Fabregas and Manalang. 

We won't divulge much about the other scenes but for sure "Ely Buendia, A Night at the Theater" was a successful experiment, a fresh concept among somewhat predictable concert formats in the local live entertainment scene. 

For the "Ang Huling El Bimbo" segments, the concert used the original direction by Dexter Martinez Santos, original musical arrangements by Salomon and original projection designs by GA Fallarme. 

Hats off to director Wilson, whose underappreciated expertise in handling a rock concert and musical was felt that night. He'd manage to tone down the tragic part of the musical and turn the whole show into a celebration. 

It takes someone who knows both genres not from the outside but as practitioner. Millennials may know little about him but outside the theater, Wilson has always been a rock musician. Not so long ago, he's been official vocalist for guitar wizard Jun Lopito and the Bodhisattvas. Wilson was also vocalist for The Blue Rats.

Some asides

But the show is not all perfection. We found some of the dialogue cheesy. One was when Young Anthony would expound on loving musicals a lot but immediately try to downplay his obsession, as if it's a dirty secret. This has been a trite generalization that only gay men like musicals. 

As for the concert part, Buendia and his band gave their all to turn NPAT into one of their concerts. It's just a bit frustrating that people were either too shy or -- gasp -- too old to stand up, sing and dance. 

In any live band concert, we look forward to the magical moment, when a particular song begins and we feel the unexpected goose bumps. Then we know we are one with the crowd when they lit up their camera phones and sway them above their heads, creating a stream of lights coming from their gadgets' LED lights. 

It happened when U2 sang its final encore, "One" at the Philippine Arena. And in "Ely Buendia, A Night at the Theater,"  that kind of magic happened when the band performed "With A Smile" -- and Buendia didn't even ask the audience to bring out their phones.

Everybody's looking forward to 02-20-2020. Hopefully it would gather a more lively audience. Perhaps Novenario could insert in Buendia's script to say that it's OK for the crowd to stand up, sing and dance with the band during the concert segment and the encore. 

After all, it's Ely Buendia's second night as musical actor.