"Bituing Walang Ningning" is best known to me as a Sharon Cuneta movie back in 1985. Christopher de Leon plays her discoverer and manager Nico Escobar. Ms. Cherie Gil turned the villainess role Lavinia Arguelles into an iconic character of Philippine cinema, with an immortal line about a "second-rate, trying hard copycat" that everyone knows by heart. I have vague memories about this film. Not really a fan of this type of films back then, I am not even sure I ever watched it completely.
However, it turns out, "Bituin" started its life as komiks serial penned by the prolific writer, Nerissa Cabral. In 2006, this was also made into a TV series, starring Sarah Geronimo, Ryan Agoncillo and Angelika de la Cruz in the lead roles.
This time the multimedia hit takes on another incarnation -- a stage musical with a script written by Freddie Santos, who is also the director of this production by Resorts World Manila (RWM), Full House Theater Company in cooperation with Viva Communications, Inc. (Viva). The script includes 11 songs by Filipino pop maestro Willy Cruz.
The show was first announced six months ago in January 2015. It did not even have a lead actress to play Dorina yet. A nationwide search was launched to search for this new star. And in March 2015, 19-year old Monica Cuenco from Leyte won the lead role. Cuenco seems to have lived the life of Dorina. She had been an orphan since age of eight and grew up with an aunt, making ends meet by selling puto and joining singing contests. She narrowly missed the big prize, placing second in the 2011 ABS-CBN reality talent show “Star Power: Sharon’s Search for the Next Female Superstar” (won by Angeline Quinto).
Luckily I was able to leave work by 4:15 pm, earlier than usual. There was a very strong downpour that afternoon and since it was the rush hour, there was very heavy traffic most of the way. I had to buy a burger to eat along the way for my dinner. I reached the Resorts World Newport Performing Arts Theater already 8:10 pm!
Fortunately, they decided to delay the opening of the show to 8:30 pm since maybe there are notably still several empty seats in the supposedly sold out venue that gala opening night. Ceremonies were kicked off by RMW Chief Entertainment Officer Colin Kerr and Ms. Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo. Their introductory speech was entertaining, because Kerr would sing the title every time he would mention it, and later Ms. Menchu did the same.
Director and scriptwriter Freddie Santos confessed how nervous and pressured he was feeling, especially since the original writer of the story Nerissa Cabral and the composer of the 11 songs in the show Danny Cruz were both in the audience that night. I was half hoping Sharon Cuneta would be there, but no dice.
Dorina Pineda is a poor but spunky young girl who was also an obsessed big fan of singing pop-dance superstar Lavinia Arguelles. Lavinia's manager and boyfriend Nico Escobar discovers Dorina's own hidden prowess in singing. Nico decided to build Dorina up to provide competition and impart a lesson to the bratty and swell-headed Lavinia. However, as Dorina's star begins to rise, can she handle the intense intrigue that comes with success in show business?
All eyes are on newcomer Monica Cuenco in the lead role of Dorina. Her nerves and inexperience were quite evident in her acting and singing performances on this opening night. Even if they were melodically beautiful, her big showcase numbers "Pangarap na Bituin" and "Bituing Walang Ningning" did not possess not the flawless showstopping song deliveries you would expect for her to be convincing as the rising star seriously able to threaten the career of an established star.
Her counter water-splashing scene did not work out perfectly as she again got water splashed on her as well. Her climactic conversation with Nico about their relationship in Act 2 meandered for a bit as she (and Mark) seemed to have missed some lines, as the English translations on the widescreen would betray.
It would not not fair to compare Monica with the previous Dorinas Sharon Cuneta and Sarah Geronimo, who were already big experienced stars when they got to play this role. Monica is experiencing an actual Dorina moment this night. This is only opening night and I understand the pressure she must have been feeling. She comes across as earnest and determined as she showed in her initial scenes. I hope she would be able to shake off these nerves and deliver more polished performances in the shows to come. As to matching Cuneta's and Geronimo's charisma and presence, that may be too much to ask.
Cris Villonco was the best overall performer in the show as she tackles Lavinia with such ferocious bitchiness, perpetually arched eyebrows and all. This showy role easily makes her the most explosive and memorable performer since everyone else was basically playing bland goody-goody roles. Villonco had measured campiness in her Lavinia that was delightful to watch, especially in that iconic water-splashing scene. I do wish she was given better songs to sing. While she sings them well, I did find it hard to accept her "Magandang Gabi sa Inyong Lahat" and "Ang Boyfriend Kong Baduy" as big '80s pop-dance hits though.
Mark Bautista also had very strong stage presence. However, he seemed trapped in restraints the way his Nico Escobar was written as a character who had an eternal frown on his face as he grapples with deep thoughts. He definitely shines more when he gets to sing. His first song was the ballad "Sa Duyan ng Pag-Ibig" (originally a midtempo 1980 Metro Pop entry by Passionata) which was not too familiar. But his next two other songs were both very popular and Bautista delivered them with so much passion. This guy's voice was perfect for these classic Filipino pop ballads.
Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo obviously had fun with her featured role as entertainment journalist Edith, a role created to break the monotony of melodrama in the show. She mixed her intrigue-digging Inday Badiday character with touches of Maurice Arcache flair and Ogie Diaz cattiness, if you can imagine that. The "True or Untrue" segment in her show "Exclusively Edith" was hilarious, as she injected some Kris Aquino's "Deal or No Deal" into the mix. I was expecting Ms. Menchu to rip through a Willy Cruz ballad herself, but that was not to be as Edith did not have a song to sing.
Pinoy Dream Academy (2006) alumnus and finalist Ronnie Liang also had his share of the spotlight in his first musical theater venture as pianist and composer Garry Diaz. Liang had the height, looks and a good singing voice, but I felt his costume and makeup somewhat hampered his stage presence. Liang got to sing "Init sa Magdamag" (a duet with Karina Joy Macaspac) and an upbeat solo "Paikot-Ikot" (originally by Randy Santiago).
Expect Jon Santos to steal all his scenes as Auntie, Dorina's flamboyantly gay uncle and guardian who ran his own sampaguita business. He gets to sing Cebuano folk song "Usahay" in an early scene with Dorina. In more minor non-singing roles were Michael Williams (who played Larry, a record company owner), Jay Roa (who played Zosimo, Nico's new business partner) and John Nite (who played Kuya Germs German Moreno with relish in his glittery coats and trademark accent).
Unlike "Mamma Mia" and "Rak of Aegis" which took songs from one artist and incorporated them to tell the story of the play, "Bituing Walang Ningning" uses the songs of Willy Cruz mostly as song numbers of the singer characters only, not really material to the story being told at that moment. The only exceptions would be "Sana'y Maghintay ang Walang Hanggan" (sung by Nico, Dorina and Gary) and "Mahawi Man ang Ulap" (by Nico) which seemed apt for the situations when they were sung. The title song "Bituing Walang Ningning" was sung three times all in Act 2, but it was only at the final concert scene that it was in more meaningful in context.
(Photo Credit: JSS)
Those huge stars that adorned the stage during final concert scene were spectacular. However in some scenes, the huge stage could feel awkwardly empty. The colorful backdrop projections provided much needed help to keep things interesting. The occasional advertisements projected (notably) Aristocrat restaurant and Champion detergent) can be rather distracting. I also like the idea of having the actors also engage some members of the audience as they walked among the seats in the auditorium and shook their hands as if the audience were in attendance of the events portrayed during the show.
The live musical accompaniment was provided by the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Rodel Colmenar. The lighting director Shakira Villa Symes was able to create perfect dramatic atmospheres for the showstopping ballad song numbers. The effort by the production designers to create an 80s atmosphere was commendable. Those huge cell phones were remarkable.Thankfully for those seated on the sides, there were live projections on both sides with English subtitles, which can be entertaining in themselves (like "baduy" is "hokey" and "pangarap na bituin" is "wished-for star").
Being opening night, there were still a number of mic glitches which marred some scenes. I am sure the production has observed and noted down the opening night hitches in the acting styles, blocking issues, excess or awkward dialogue and various tech problems and correct them accordingly in order to further streamline the show.
With modern Filipino theater going into exciting new directions with "Sa Wakas", "Rak of Aegis" and "Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady", an old-fashioned melodramatic musical like this may find it hard to attract the younger audience who look for angst and excitement. The attraction of a musical like this though is very different. "Bituing Walang Ningning" evokes nostalgia for '80s showbiz and OPM, which is always fun to revisit for those who have lived it. (It was nice to hear "Kumusta Ka?" and "Points of View" again.) The multimedia success of this story is testament to its appeal among Filipinos. And as always, the musical talents of our Filipino artists cannot be overlooked. Kudos!
"Bituing Walang Ningning" runs up to July 18, 2015 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater, Resorts World Manila, at 8 pm on Thursdays to Saturdays, and at 3 pm on Sundays. Tickets are care of TicketWorld and sold at these prices: SVIP PHP3,300, VIP PHP2,500, Gold PHP1,900, Silver PHP1,400 and Bronze PHP1,000.