Friday, February 20, 2015

Review of Ballet Phils' MANHID: A Political Musical with Pinoy Mutants

February 20, 2015

I went to watch "Manhid" tonight at the CCP Main Theater with no clear idea what the storyline would be like. The subtitle "The Pinoy Superhero Musical" is most intriguing. I have seen photos of the cast of actors, singers and ballet dancers in various colorful "hero" costumes. This is a 45th anniversary production of Ballet Philippines, so it is fair to expect dance to be a major component of the show.

It turns out that these "Pinoy superhero" characters would be thrust into a political plot. This original Filipino musical was first staged in UP Diliman back in 1991 when the US bases were the issue of the day. Writer Kanakan-Balintagos (then more popularly known as Auraeus Solito) wrote this play as "a protest against the apathy of the Filipino people." As the play progresses, you will get a sense that it was inspired by the mutant X-Men of Marvel comics and films, the battles between the good and bad among them, and their conflicts with non-mutants, all in a decidedly Filipino context. 

Some of the music was composed by Vincent de Jesus, who is still a popular movie, TV and theater musical director to this day. It is also very interesting to note that THE Pinoy rock band of the 90s, the Eraserheads (Ely Buendia, Raymund Marasigan, Buddy Zabala, Marcus Adoro), also composed music for this musical, and also played as the in-house band onstage in the original production. This was before they eventually broke through to massive mainstream success and icon status. In fact, I was surprised to hear one of the E-head's big hits "Kailan" sung in this show!

Sandino Martin and Teetin Villanueva

The play is about a future in the Philippines when Mamalahi-ma, the evil megalomaniac Minister of Humanity, wants to kill 99 "children of protest" who were born with special powers, so she can control the whole country. She surrounds herself with a bunch of them who have turned to the dark side, calling themselves the "Tulisan ng Bayan," led by the spear-wielding Gen. Apolaki. Also under her thumb was the mesmerizing shapeshifter and seducer Radia Indarapatra. 

They target to eliminate the "Maragtas", the rest of the children of protest who remained to be on the side of good. Among them were Bantugan (with the power of dreams), Lam-Ang (with the power of wind), Urduja (with the power of insects), Dilim (with the power of song) and Alunsina (with an extraordinary power with her profane tongue). The musical climaxes with a battle-royale to the death between these two rival groups, where only the strongest and most powerful ones survive.

Mayen Estanero and Fredison Lo

The singing is very strong and powerful. I was really surprised that indie film actor Sandino Martin (as Bantugan) can sing so well. He gets to sing "Kailan", the only familiar tune in the show, and that number between Bantugan and Alunsina was one of the most memorable moments of the whole show. Teetin Villanueva (as Lam-Ang) and Jean Judith Javier (as Dilim) I already know are great singers, as I have heard them sing in Dulaang UP productions before. Javier in particular had to hit some pretty killer notes. I knew he could sing very well, but Fredison Lo surprised me in his daring and sensual portrayal of Radia Indarapatra.

The most powerful vocal performances come from three ladies I have never seen before. These were Kim Molina (as foul-mouthed Alunsina), KL Dizon (as the alluring Urduja) and Mayen Estanero (as the despicable Mamalahim-Ma). These three ladies were powerhouse vocalists with their own unique styles. Molina and Estanero were also very funny. Looking forward to seeing and hearing them in more musical productions in the future.

Jean Judith Javier

The dancers from Ballet Philippines played able supporting characters to the singers and actors in this production. Since I recently just watched BP's "Cinderella", it was interesting to watch them dance a totally different, interpretative type of modern dance. Choreography was by Alden Lugnasin and Paul Alexander Morales

Richardson Yadao (as Apolaki) even had spoken lines which he delivered in an American drawl since Apolaki was supposed to be a West Point graduate. Very funny indeed. The other two male BP principal dancers Jean Marc Cordero and Earl John Arisola also stand out marked roles as the winged Sarimanok and the dark puppet master Malyari respectively.

Two beautiful and elegant female dancers, Katherine Trofeo and Rita Angela Winder, may have no lines, but they danced the two most sinister and powerful evil characters, Gonoglenda (with the deadly touch) and Rasagadang (with the voodoo doll) respectively. Really amazing transformations for these ladies.

The Creative Team (De Veyra, Buendia, Evangelista, Kanakan-Balintagos, De Jesus)

Admittedly, it was not too easy for me to immediately understand what was going on in the beginning of the play. There were a lot of characters onstage at the same time, and it was not easy to catch the story told in songs. Just when you think you finally figured out what was going on, a major character dies and Act 1 ends already. However, from Act 2 and Act 3, the characters, the story and even the songs become easier to follow and understand. Even then, you may feel you really need to buy its very detailed souvenir playbill to fully know the characters and understand everything that is going on on that big stage.

"Manhid" is ambitious and it pulls it off. Director Paul Alexander Morales effectively manages his big cast of singers, dancers, actors, and a live band (Radioactive Sago Project) to fill up the expansive stage and create truly a unique and exhilarating theater experience. The message still hold true now as it did back in 1991. Can the youth of today take on the challenge posed by this play?

"Manhid" runs at the CCP Main Theater Fridays (8 pm), Saturdays (2 pm and 6 pm) and Sundays (2 pm and 6 pm) from February 20 to March 8, 2015.

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