First there was "Mamma Mia" which gathered the discography of one musical act ABBA and used their songs and lyrics to tell a coherent story. Last year, "Sa Wakas" did the same to the hits of the local band Sugarfree to excellent results. This time, the music of the ultimate local female rock duo Aegis gets the same treatment from writer Liza Magtoto, and out came "Rak of Aegis."
This musical play is set in Barangay Venizia, a poor community wallowing in flood waters for several months now. Aileen Dimaraan loves to sing, and wishes her singing will bring her fortune when she gets noticed by Ellen Degeneres. When her Youtube music video goes viral though, her dreams for fame and fortune are caught between familial, personal and even societal conflicts.
Barangay Venizia scene
Aicelle Santos, who stole the scene as young Katy de la Cruz in the revival of the original Filipino musical "Katy!" last year, beautifully essays the charming but flawed role of Aileen. Her singing is undeniably strong, as we have heard before. Those punishing wailing high notes of the Aegis girls were actually given more class and pathos when Aicelle sings their songs. (Joan Bugcat alternates in this role.)
For me, the finest senior performer in the cast was Juliene Mendoza, who played the supposedly antagonistic role of Fernan, the sleazy developer of the neighboring subdivision. I say "supposedly" because the way Juliene played him, we end up thinking he was pretty cool and likable. His singing was so unexpectedly good. After seeing him outshine the leads in "Bona" and "Lorenzo," he is one of my favorite theater actors now. (Nor Domingo alternates in this role.)
Also doing better among the adults was Kakai Bautista as Mercy, Aileen's mother. The way her role was written was so well, such that even she was stricken with leptospirosis, she never descends to abject negativity. Her singing was not perfect musically, but nevertheless, it was perfect for the role she plays. (Neomi Gonzales alternates in this role.)
Fernan and Mary Jane confer
Isay Alvarez plays barangay captain Mary Jane in a pretty straightforward, no frills way. Her singing voice was very good as expected, but somehow there was something lacking. I think it is not her, but maybe it was the way her role was written, because it did not really have a big highlight for her to shine. (Kalila Aguilos alternates in this role.)
Ms. Isay's husband Robert Sena is unfortunately caught in a very morose and joyless role as Kiel, the constantly angry father of Aileen. Even the singing he had to do felt almost maudlin in its heaviness. He does his best, but the role is too negative for a play like this. (Juliene Mendoza alternates in this role. I'm curious how differently he'd handle this Kiel character, especially since he is already so good in the Fernan role.)
After debuting in the challenging lead role of "Lorenzo" last year, Poppert Bernadas now takes on the role of Kenny, the unproductive son of Mary Jane and suitor of Aileen. The way his role was written, it was hard for him to get the audience to side with him. His singing voice was definitely strong and faultless. (Myke Salomon alternates in this role, and it should be interesting to see how he attacks this difficult role.)
Tolits and Aileen swoon
Kenny's rival for Aileen's affections was Tolits, the guy who runs the boating operations in the flooded streets of Venezia. Jerald Napoles (no relation to Janet) plays him so coyly. He gets to deliver the funniest and the cheesiest pick-up lines. The girls in the audience love him. His singing voice is full and soaring as well. (Pepe Herrera alternates in this role.)
Gay neighborhood sari-sari store owner and Aileen's BFF Jewel is played with utmost bombast by Phi Palmos. He wears the most outlandish costumes and gets to deliver a lot of funny lines as well. He also gets to singing in two voices a la Marcelino Pomoy, which was a delight to watch and listen to. (Ron Alfonso alternates in this role.)
The Ensemble plays the various other neighborhood characters in the play. Gimbey dela Cruz stood out exceptionally because she was so wacky and outrageous. I also recognized Carlon Matobato and John Emmanuel Moran, who were familiar to me from other PETA plays they had before.
Aileen's Viral Video
I am not really aware of all the Aegis songs, but the familiar ones were here, like "Halik", "Sinta", "Luha", "Mahal na Mahal Kita", "Bakit (Ako Ngayo'y Hate Mo)", "Christmas Bonus", "I Love You Na Lang Sa Tago", and of course the ubiquitous "Basang Basa sa Ulan." They would either sing entire songs or only sing certain segments to fit the situation. At times, they just use the familiar melody of a hit, and sing totally new lyrics into it. Kudos to Musical and Vocal Director Myke Salomon for the excellent musical and vocal arrangements of the Aegis hits.
Above all, congratulations to Director Maribel Legarda and Playwright Liza Magtoto who told the story in a way that felt somewhat predictable in the First Act, but the Second Act turns out to be something else than what would seem expected. The concept of setting a musical in a flooded urban poor community is brave and unprecedented. The use of video projections to move the story forward was also very effective.
The very innovative actualization of "flooded" Barangay Venizia was by Set Designer Mio Infante. He occupied the stage and a big part of the orchestra section with his multi-tiered set that had a river of "polluted" flood water running through it.
Among the credits, there was a special mention of Shoe Designer Maco Custodio, but you will have to watch the show to see why he was credited prominently.
Sanzzy Curtain Call
The title has nothing to do with the story, so you are in for a surprise treat as to how it unfolds. There are a lot of laughs here (even a jab at a currently famous condo invitation), but like all PETA productions, there is always a very important social message as well. This show was thought-provoking as it was fun and entertaining.
"Rak of Aegis" runs from January 31 to March 9, 2014 at The PETA Theater Center located at No.5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. Tickets are now available via www.ticketworld.com.ph, 891-9999. For more information, call PETA at 725-6244 or 0917-5765400, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.petatheater.com.
****** UPDATE: August 22, 2016
The review above was written two years ago when I watched the very first show of Rak of Aegis. Since then it had been a theater phenomenon, running well over 250 shows in five separate runs. This current run, called "Rak of Aegis 5.0", is said to be its final run ever. All the shows were sold out weeks before, even weekday shows. I did not think I would ever get to watch it but unexpected circumstances led to my ticket to tonight's 8 pm show on its final week. This run ends on August 28, 2016.
The cast had already expanded to have three to five alternates for all the major roles of Aileen, Mary Jane, Kiel, Tolits, Kenny, Jewel and Fernan. When I saw the cast list outside the theater, I did not know any of these actors on board last night, so at first I was disappointed that I will not see more familiar actors. However as the show went on, they all turned out to be so good that I eventually warmed up to them. Like before, all of them really sang these notoriously lung-busting Aegis songs exceptionally well.
Tonight, Aileen was played by petite powerhouse "The Voice 2" runner-up Alisah Bonaobra. Bonaobra was a better singer than she was an actress for now, but she will definitely improve in that aspect as she gets more shows under her belt. (Kim Molina, Tanya Manalang and Aicelle Santos alternate as Aileen. Too bad I never got to see Molina's Gawad Buhay winning lead performance.)
Mary Jane was played by Tricia Jimenez, who was so unexpectedly good as the Kapitana. As I wrote above, I was a bit underwhelmed by Isay Alvarez's performance of this lackluster role. However, I think with time, I guess the writing of this role and its singing demands have really improved, especially in the second half, which was full of inspired duets I did not recall from before. (Sweet Plantado-Tiongson, Shiela Valderrama-Martinez, Carla Guevara-Laforteza and Isay Alvarez alternate as Mary Jane.)
The Kiel tonight was portrayed by veteran pop singer Renz Verano, who was really one of those who stood out for me. This role was also expanded with more difficult rock singing numbers. Verano was one of those performers who earned spontaneous applause right after his very powerful and gritty belting songs. (OJ Mariano, Lorenz Martinez and Robert Sena alternate as Kiel.)
The character with the most audience impact is still Aileen's cheesy loverboy Tolits. Joshua Bulot, the Tolits last night, really connected with the girls and matrons in the audience with his boy-band good looks, soaring vocals, pick-up lines and six-pack abs. (Pepe Herrera, Benj Manalo and Jerald Napoles alternate as Tolits. I have been hearing raves about Manalo's performance, so too bad I did get to see him on. I also missed Hererra's Gawad Buhay winning interpretation.)
Vince Lim played Kenny last night, and his vocal range was really impressive, complete with a rocker's wailing. There were some funny references about his being Chinoy. Like Mary Jane, this character's development seemed better this time compared to the first run. (Myke Salomon and Poppert Bernadas alternate as Kenny.)
The rest of the cast I saw last night were Joann Co (as Mercy), Ron Alfonso (as Jewel), and Gie Onida (as Fernan), who all shined in their featured song numbers. I did not get to see the other alternates Neomi Gonzales, Jimmy Marquez and Jon Santos in these roles. The ensemble last night was composed of Gio Gahol, Paeng Sudayan, Gold Villar, Abigail Sulit, Jet Barrun Concepcion and Roi Calilong. Other members of the ensemble in other shows are: Carlon Matobato, John Moran, Gimbey dela Cruz, Gab Pangilinan, Via Antonio, Raflesia Bravo and Teetin Villanueva.
"Para Kay Aileen," the Aegis song where the lead character name Aileen came from, was now included as the upbeat first song that opened the second half of the show after the intermission. There is also the inclusion of the hit song "Sayang na Sayang" as a duet between Kiel and Mary Jane. These two characters whom I thought were very dry in the original show turned out to be my favorites in this new incarnation, thanks to the rich portrayals by Verano and Jiimenez.