As Rak of Aegis enjoyed a couple of successful runs, Sa Wakas returned with a vengeance and Ako si Josephine had its initial run. It kept me wondering how much longer I had to wait till someone picked up The Eraserheads’ rich discography and turned it into a blockbuster of a musical.
Not for long, said the universe.
Because in January 2018, posters asking “Kamukha mo ba si Paraluman?” and “Magaling ka bang sumayaw, mapa-boogie man o cha-cha?” (with a font and color scheme mimicking The Eraserheads’ first album cover) littered my Facebook feed, and in millennial-speak, FAM, I WAS SHOOKETH. I messaged my theatre-going buddies and in a few minutes decided we would buy tickets immediately when they started selling. (We did wait a few weeks in reality, because funds. Tickets at Resorts World Manila’s Newport Performing Arts Theater ain’t cheap, fam.)
And finally — last night, my high school barkada and I went on a trip down memory lane, together with Hector, Emman, Anthony, and Joy. And the music that was the soundtrack to many of our high school ups and downs.
THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.
Let me get this out of the way first: This musical should come with a trigger warning for sexual assault, violence, and drug use.
Ang Huling El Bimbo‘s premise is simple enough on paper: Despite their differences, four friends (three guys and a girl) forge a friendship during their college years, only to drift apart after an unfortunate circumstance befalls them one night, a week before graduation. The musical opens in the present, with a body covered in white cloth in the middle of the stage. We aren’t told who this is or why they are dead, but if you’ve been paying attention to the 23-year old Eraserheads song, you’re going to assume this is the girl who looks like Paraluman, who has a job washing dishes in Ermita and a child out of wedlock. We meet our three male leads, Hector (the rich kid), Emman (the probinsyano scholar), and Anthony (the closeted homosexual) later, when they are called to the police station for something. They aren’t told yet what they’re there for, but we’re already conditioned to fear the worst. Before any other present information is revealed, though, we are taken back in time — to when the three guys meet for the first time at a dorm in their university.
We are treated to a highlight reel of how their friendship began and developed during a cleverly crafted number to the tune of Minsan. After that, we are given a sneak peek into their love lives via Tindahan ni Aling Nena. It’s not until after they become each others’ confidantes (via Pare Ko) do we meet the fourth member of this barkada, Joy, who I initially thought was merely someone who worked at a carinderia called Toyang’s. (I later learned she was also a student in the university. Or, was it the same university? She worked at the carinderia all the time, it seemed.)
Through another montage of scenes following a highly confusing breakup scene (Tama Ka/Ligaya), we are given a glimpse of how Joy becomes Anthony’s BFF (Hey, Jay), a little sister figure to Emman (Wishing Wells/Fine Time), and ultimately, Hector’s love interest (Huwag Kang Matakot). As the boys’ graduation looms near, they go on a joyride (Alapaap/Overdrive) which ends on a tragic note (refer to the first two items on the trigger warning above).
Later, we hear the cast sing With a Smile during their graduation rites and are taken back to the night of the incident. Spoliarium plays, and Emman suggests they go to the police, while Anthony demands they go to the hospital. An undecided Hector stops the car when Joy asks him to, and she gets out and breaks down on the street, afterwards telling them they should all go straight home. Everything pretty much falls apart after that — the boys move on after graduation, and Toyang’s goes bankrupt despite Joy’s efforts to keep it afloat, urging her aunt Dely to sell the property to a sleazy old man who turns the carinderia to a KTV-cum-drug and sex den (Tikman/Bogchi Hokbu/Alapaap).
Somewhere in between these scenes, Councilor Banlaoi — the boys’ former CMT head officer — informs present Hector, Emman, and Anthony that a woman was found dead in Ermita, and a Polaroid photo was found on her. The photo in question was the last photo they took during their joyride with Joy, before the unthinkable happened; Councilor Banlaoi played connect-the-dots, and called the boys in to confirm if there was no foul play involved. It is then revealed that the friends have not seen or communicated with each other for twenty years.
Again, a montage of what happens to our characters begins, which pretty much takes us to where we started when the curtains rose. Emman, now a workaholic, struggles to provide for his family, which puts a strain on his relationship with his childhood sweetheart, Mylene (Poorman’s Grave). Anthony never got the chance to come out, and was forced to marry a woman whom he couldn’t get intimate with (Slo Mo/Kailan/Torpedo). Hector has become a commitment-phobic TV director who has a reputation for leading girls on (Walang Nagbago/Huwag Mo Nang Itanong/Para sa Masa). Finally, Joy is shown delivering some sort of package from Councilor Banlaoi — who was the boys’ CMT professor in college — to her baby daddy, who doesn’t really seem interested in her or her child.
In a moment of clarity, Joy leaves her child with her aunt and confronts Councilor Banlaoi. It’s the last time we see her alive in the present timeline, and then we’re taken to the scene at the police station where Dely arrives to identify her niece’s body. She sees the boys her niece was friends with, all grown up now, and lashes out at them for not being there for Joy all these years. They apologize, each of them armed with reasons why they couldn’t come back and see her after they left college. Still, Dely allows the three men to join her at the morgue, where they all tearfully say sorry and goodbye. Ang Huling El Bimbo starts here and ends at Joy’s funeral, where we learn she left a warning to her aunt: Be careful around Councilor Banlaoi.
We then see the happiest and most tragic night of their lives — a car with four friends, bright-eyed and hopeful, driving up to Antipolo. Joy’s daughter, Ligaya, joins the scene and climbs up the car hood, stars twinkling above them. It’s the last image we see before the lights close.
- The music. Eraserheads fan favorites were made to sound new and/or riveting and emotional with the new arrangements. The Manila Philharmonic Orchestra was FUCKING BRILLIANT like OH MY GOD?! When the overture began and I heard Poorman’s Grave on strings, I made an excited squeaking sound I hid behind my friend’s shoulder. I think I slapped her knee way too much, considering it was my go-to move every time I was having an eargasm. I know there’s probably a lot of legalities to deal with, but is it too much to ask for a cast album?
- The set and lighting design. G O R G E O U S. My favorite, hands down, is Toyang’s carinderia and how things were happening in and around it, signifying the passage of time. I was seated at the farthest row in the theatre and managed to see everything in its full form. That design was just genius. I also liked the three versions of Nena’s tindahan and the tiangge in the Hey, Jay sequence — very cute. Lighting design was also SPOT ON. Loved the way the Alapaap/Overdrive sequence was lit, most especially.
- The references. Um, hello — dance steps of the ’90s! My former dance troupe self was so happy seeing those dance steps during Tindahan ni Aling Nena, okay!?! Especially since one of those iconic steps was part of my audition piece in high school, HA HA. Hello, Mr./Ms. Choreographer, whoever you are, thanks for reminding me of those happy, happy days. ^_^ (Also, that EAF looked so much like a DLSU EAF, if you know what I mean.)
- The performances. Powerful performances by the entire cast and ensemble. Man, that must be some workout! Special mention to Gian Magdangal, Reb Atadero, Topper Fabregas, Tanya Manalang, and Sheila Francisco.
- Tiny details.
- The NPAT’s leg room is bigger than The Theater Solaire’s. Yes, that’s a detail I really like, because I am rather excitable and would hate accidentally hitting the seat in front of me when I get all fangirly about something.
- The soap jokes = HAHAHAHAHAHA!
- The entire Pare Ko sequence was a HIT for me. Reminded me of junior/senior high and our marching exercises/kata. I almost wanted to yell “HELLO, DID ANYONE FROM ST. SCHO MANILA CONTRIBUTE TO THIS CHOREOGRAPHY???” Then again, those things might be pretty universal, so…heh.
- Tikman, Bogchi Hokbu, and Alapaap having two starkly different meanings at different points in the show. Loved that. <3
- The souvenir program is fashioned like a yearbook! So pretty, and also inexpensive at P300. I thought it would cost more, given the quality. Hee. (Shirts are being sold for P700, maybe I’ll buy one next time.)
- Special shoutout, by the way, to NPAT’s ushers who assisted my friend, who was in a wheelchair, into the theatre. *thumbs up*
What I didn’t like
- The story. Flimsy, at best, and while the songs were mostly entertaining, it got obvious after the fourth or fifth big number that the plot development was dragging. I appreciated the montages (Minsan was my favorite, it could be translated well on film), but I felt like there was one too many? And with the amount of time we spent learning about the four main characters, it still didn’t hit me as emotionally as it should have when things began to fall apart. It all felt disjointed to me. Like all of those big, flashy production numbers in between lost me and I was left reeling and not knowing how to feel when the gut punches came in.Some things didn’t make sense either. Like how these three grown ups actually agreed to stay at the precinct and sign stuff without really knowing what they’re there for. They’re told to wait, and they do? At a precinct? There’s talk about calling a lawyer, but that’s quickly dismissed. I don’t know about you guys, but if I were suddenly summoned to the precinct for unknown reasons, I WOULD FEAR FOR MY LIFE. Seriously, with what’s been happening around us lately?And here’s my biggest problem: Joy felt to me like a plot device, a sort-of manic pixie dream girl figure written into the story to teach the three male leads a lesson about life. Everything in the male leads’ lives went downhill after that one incident that directly involved Joy, and yet, we are offered nothing much about what happened to her after Toyang’s crashed and burned. She had a baby with a man who doesn’t love her, check. She’s doing some shady deals with Councilor Banlaoi, check. She…somehow realizes she wanted out and quit, check? What went on there? What did Councilor Banlaoi have to do with this? Was HE the one who ran her over by the car — because she knew too much? Did she ever get the justice she deserved after that incident twenty years ago? I HAVE SO MANY QUESTIONS, and yet what we were shown was how Emman’s marriage was crumbling, Anthony’s wife has had enough, and Hector’s womanizing ways was getting the best of him. And even those bits and pieces felt so disconnected, I had trouble empathizing.ME. HAVING TROUBLE EMPATHIZING. This is NOT a thing that usually happens, and I’m pretty sure it’s not Mercury Retrograde.
My friend blurted this out last night and somehow it made perfect sense: “This entire musical just mansplained everything.”
Granted, Director Dexter Santos said in his director’s notes that Ang Huling El Bimbo is a work-in-progress. So am I to expect a second run with fully fleshed out characters and less tedious plot development? I hope that’s the case, because no matter how much I enjoyed the music and the performances, there’s only so much this roster of extremely talented actors can do.
- The stage. TOO. DAMN. HUGE. I mean, the set design people did an amazing job keeping our gazes fixed where they needed to be, but there were moments where I felt like everything got dwarfed by so much space around them. Not sure how this could be addressed, though, since the current design makes it clear there was already an effort to contain everything in a smaller space.
- Some songs felt out of place? I think this is pretty self-explanatory? Like, dude…I love Poorman’s Grave a lot but the way it was used in the context of the story seemed off to me, especially since Emman and his family weren’t completely destitute. He was struggling with finances, sure, but they didn’t seem poor to me. In fact, where socioeconomic classes are concerned, they look like a lower middle class family (couple?) to me.
And what was up with that break-up scene in Act 1, by the way? Do people usually start break-ups by saying “I’m so happy to have you/to have known you…let’s take things to the next level?” I wasn’t sure if I missed something there, but I’m pretty darn certain “next level” in a relationship doesn’t mean “Let’s break up.” At least not in the ’90s.
- Some nitty-gritty stuff.
- The audio was a bit scratchy for us last night (July 28, 8PM), and I wasn’t sure if that was just a one-time thing, or something that occurred for the other shows.
- How does NPAT deal with latecomers? Because people were still coming in well beyond maybe the 10-minute mark of the show, and it’s super annoying when you’re seated at the back. Also, if the latecomers are seated at your row and you need to move/lean back/do whatever to let them pass. (Butbutbut — I know, there’s traffic EVERYWHERE! But didn’t we already know this since like…three years ago? There’s nothing new about the traffic situation in the metro, Brenda, sit down.)/END RANT
I’m seeing the musical again in August (because that is a thing I do), and while I don’t think my opinion of it will change, I’m still looking forward to a good time.
Cheers to your hard work, Ang Huling El Bimbo cast and crew — I wish you a successful run, and several more in the future so we can watch this gem really shine.
Ang Huling El Bimbo runs until September 2 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World Manila. For tickets, visit Ticketworld or call 891-9999.