May 16, 2020 (12:26 PM)

7 min read


Photo taken from Resorts World Manila

I envy people who frequent theaters to watch plays. I’m the guy who does not want to gamble the possibility of witnessing errors on theater (be it forgotten/flubbed lines, faulty equipment, bad audience, etc.)  in the presence of performers that could mess up or “awkwardize” an entire performance real-time. I know they’re pros and extensively rehearsed, the habit of my stupid mind to imagine things always going south is to blame. But no thanks to the virus, last May 8 and 9, I was bestowed with a compromise. Director Dexter Santos’ musical Ang Huling El Bimbo was up on YouTube for 48 hours. The nearly three-hour video collected a whopping 7 million views.

Act I

The first act opened with three men, accomplished adults living separate lives, reunited after a phone call. They were confused as we are as to why they were summoned for interrogation. And the police and councilor’s explanations get more puzzling as we go along. Through flashbacks, we’ll see them go to the same college in the 90s and immediately click. We are introduced to Joy (played by Gab Pangilinan, a face mash of Nadine and Kathryn) who’s so starry-eyed her pleasant vibes reflects the entire first act starting from her fated opening singing E-heads’ Ligaya. She helps her Tiya Dely (Sheila Francisco) run her Toyang Canteen. Joy also sells kakanins to students, thanks to the coercion of Prof. Banlaoi (Jamie Wilson), also her tiyong. This is where she befriends the idealistic trio affecting their lives in ways they can’t imagine.

In a well-executed ROTC scene, Commandant Banlaoi tells us who the trio are in bullet points. Hector (Bibo Reyes) an art student and a rich kid who’s funnily in denial of it (“Sir! Middle class lang po ako sir!”); Emman (Boo Gabunada), a probinsyano stereotype in all respects (I’ll get back to him later); and Anthony (Phi Palmos) a closeted gay son of a military man, a cliché to be scorned if not for Ramos’ amusing portrayal.

The set of El Bimbo undeniably went above expectations. It enticed me to confront my fear of going to plays. Match it with some foot-tapping music so heartily nostalgic 90s vibes and so interestingly reused (in one scene sparsely for fully chilling effect), it left me impressed. Days after watching the musical, I turned up my Eraserheads playlist. The songs gave me flashes of the musical’s best moments. That’s quite a feat.

El Bimbo’s weaknesses, however, lie in its characters and plot. If there’s one whom I’d gladly want to see leave the stage ASAP, it would be the young Emman. He’s so stereotyped I’m not sure if it’s the actor’s interpretation of him, the writing, or both that made him look like an icky clown. He’s begging for laughs yet lacked the inventiveness to do so. His skits always fall flat, (save for the snickering of some urbanites in the crowd). Now, I’d remember Emman more as a naïve idiot in his youth, than a romantic probinsyano. Maybe that’s what the writers are secretly going for to gain approval from its target audiences in Luzon.

Meanwhile, Phi Palmos saved his cliché gay-son-of-a-soldier-character with his swift comedic timing and the personal flavor he adds to his role Anthony in every gesture and inflection he makes. I was fooled into thinking that it is the great comedian Jon Santos who will deliver the amusing parts. Reyes’ Hector also effortlessly hit all his comedic cues and gave off a convincing persona. I find him the most interesting fellow of the three with his thought process and reactions later on, which, while despicable, still set up a deeper character. It was unfortunate that Joy went to waste after her character was manipulated merely for the plot.

As viewers, we felt it too. It happened twice: the first one could be easily overlooked and forgivable, the other so transparent it generated discussion on Twitter. Now don’t immediately group me with those people who are all against any depiction of violence, nudity, sex, or anything graphic on screen or on stage. I believe the hallway scene in Irréversiblewas warranted; the forest scenes in The Last House on the Left were redeemed; and portions in Salò made a sharp commentary. But with El Bimbo’s tragic road trip sequence, neither of these qualities were present. It was simply there to be edgy and move the plot. And although I could give it significant praise for the dark mood it achieved, the why should be stronger than the how.

Perhaps average theatergoers won’t bother. Having seen it live, they’d be arrested by the lights and sounds, mesmerized by the colorful props and costume, and moved by the acting and dialogue. Those are also strong points to consider, and I might throw all my criticisms out of the window if I saw it live. But even though it’s been said that every theatrical performance is unique, what remains immutable is the playwright’s work. It’s important to discuss its merits and flaws. Let’s not allow quarantine to permit writers and producers to serve us passable stories and turn us to passive viewers, most especially that on those rare hours, we’re lucky to watch for free a superbly-made play, and capable of rewind and replay.

Photo taken from ABS-CBN News

Act II

While the lighthearted and jovial tone of Act I took viewers on a wondrous ride of childish optimism before ending on a darker note, Act II fully embraced the grittiness of the overall story. Gone were the bright hues and the uplifting songs, and instead, melancholy, confusion, and anger burst out in every scene. At the center of it all was none other than Joy herself caught in a string of evil and deception, gradually losing hope for a better future as even those close to her have one-by-one started abandoning her. 

“Ang Huling El Bimbo” at this point was no longer a happy-go-lucky tale about college students flirting with maidens at the sari-sari store or making tongue-in-cheek remarks at friends. It suddenly became bleak as adult-versions of characters deal with problems of their owns—be it failing to commit oneself to a significant other or putting aside previous friendships for success in a career. It’s rare to see a Filipino musical that actually deals with human issues that even the most ordinary of individuals can relate to. 

Although there was a clear central villain in the story, the protagonists themselves were forced to perform acts that were morally gray for the purposes of surviving cruel and unjust environments. In this aspect, the characters became even more human and imperfect. The story’s world further reflected the state of Philippine society with rampant corruption, exploitation, double-dealings, and so on. There were also themes that deal with personal trauma and regret that exist within a majority of the characters, but at times, glimmers of hope and happiness still continue to persist. 

Perhaps so many people long for the sweet memories and the joyous nostalgia of yesteryear, but no one is truly exempt from facing the harsh realities of life. It is a bittersweet thing that not everyone can overcome personal circumstances, nor is it possible to rewrite past mistakes, yet as mortal beings, we continue to tread on thorns and shards of glass every single day, hoping for something better in the horizon. 

With its numerous showings in Resorts World Manila and the latest limited run online last May 9-10, 2020 which garnered millions of views, this is one Filipino musical not deserving to be missed by the masses. If anything, we have found ourselves another gem meant to be appreciated, and I daresay, scrutinized, for ages on. 

End the silence of the gagged!

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