May 21, 2015

[Theater] Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady: The Musical (Dalanghita Productions)

So first there was the one-act play featured in the Virgin LabFest. Then there was the graphic novel based on the play. And finally, there's the musical that has expanded the story into a larger than life comedy experience. And I cannot stress this enough - this production is just brilliant.

Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady: The Musical is probably the best play we've seen all year and maybe even one of the best we've seen in recent years as well. It's a wonderful original new musical that touches on a number of aspects of Filipino culture, superheroes and the plight of maids and domestic workers everywhere. It's a play that has you laughing from start to finish and yet it also has a message to share in a most clever manner.

Now it's a pretty long road for a one-act play to get expanded into a full three-hour musical theater production and we've seen how a lot of stories get lost in the effort to make something bigger and grander. However the creative team behind this show managed to do just that and in a manner that is going to remain quite memorable for years to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, this show is a game-changer.

Synopsis: Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady: The Musical is an original Filipino musical created by Carlo Vergara (of Zsazsa Zaturnnah fame) with music and lyrics by Vincent de Jesus. Completing the original team behind Zsazsa Zaturnnah ze Musikal is director Chris Martinez, who also directed the one-act play. This show is the debut of musical of Dalnghita Productions in partnership with PETA and the run was staged at the PETA Theater from May 7 to June 7, 2015.

At the core of the story is Mely (Bituin Escalante / Frenchie Dy), who struggles to support her family, which includes her elderly mother (May Bayot-De Castro) and her irresponsible younger sister Viva (Kim Molina / Natasha Cabrera). Little is expected of Viva and thus it falls on Mely's shoulders to continually maintain employment and support the family. And her latest job may be a truly complicated one - to be a maid for Fuwerza Filipinas a superhero team sponsored by some unnamed multinational corporation. They're not local and speak little to no Filipino and of course are admired by everyone like celebrities.

As Mely does her best to deal with the many, many, many rules the define her role within the superhero team, her sister Viva is approached by a mysterious government organization. They claim that the superheroes will put her sister in harm's way and only she can stop them - with a little special training of course. And did I forget to mention the fact that there seems to be something brewing between Mely and one of the heroes, Leading Man (Hans Eckstein / Markki Stroem), who also has a weird history with being too friendly with the help?

Now as much as this is a show with powerful superheroes, it's interesting to note how the play begins with Mely, Viva and their mother. The fact that we start the story with our true protagonists pretty much set the tone for the whole play - the heroes are important, but in some ways they perform a role closer to setting and flavor than being the central focus. And this subtlety in how the story was crafted is just one of the reasons why this show is brilliant.

What could we expect anything less from the creative mind of Carlo Vergara? Sure, he clearly has a love for the superhero genre and his long career in comics has been centered around exploring the nature of superheroes and how such heroes might translate within a Philippine context. But more than that, he has always been a storyteller with something to say about society. Zaturnnah was both a fun campy superhero romp and statement on how we perceive homosexuality and even gender identity as a whole. Leading Lady is an exploration of many things including the role of family in the life of a Filipino, our celebrity fan culture, our government and even the role language plays in terms of establishing informal class structures based around wealth. And I know this sounds like I'm reading too deeply into things, but seriously, there's a lot to be discovered once you take a moment to examine the story a bit more closely.

This is not to say the show is some heavy, dragging, dark epic or something. Far from it, the play is hilarious with dialog and scenes that reward those who are quick on the uptake. There are more typical jokes that everyone is expected to get and yet there are also those clever one-liners that zing by that you might just miss if you're no paying attention. And the amazing talent gathered for this show all kill it in terms delivering punchlines one after another.

And this cast - talk about a dream cast! Pretty much everyone in this production really delivered. Bituin Escalante of course is known of her amazing voice and the power she brings to a production, but she was also an endearing Mely, one whose struggle we truly feel even as we laugh at the next joke. I would have loved to have seen how Markki Stroem would have portrayed Leading Man, but it was nice to see Eckstein in the role during our show since he was also Leading Man in the one-act play. There's something about that sense of continuity between productions.

And can we talk about Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo as Madre de Dios? Oh man, with her debut in an original Filipino musical (albeit with an English-speaking role), she clearly enjoyed her experience as the leader of a superhero group. And her abs were practically a character of their own - just watch those muscle ripple as she belts in the way that only she can! She alternates with Astarte Abraham and I'm sure she's equally good given the obvious care that went into the casting process.

I also need to take a moment to celebrate the brilliant comedic performance of Nar Cabico as Senyor Blanco. Comedy is hard, more so when your character seems to be a ridiculous fop representing a member of our government. But the way he made a character out of a caricature was just amazing and I'm his ad-libs were indistinguishable from the lines provided for his character. He alternates with Domi Espejo who I'm sure brings his own unique spin to the character. But if you're in a show with Nar in the role, then count yourself fortunate indeed. This guy brought the house down again and again throughout the show.

And let's talk about the music - which was a crazy collection of a great variety of song styles from different eras and different backgrounds. Each song came with some crazy choreography and brillaint set transformations, which made for truly memorable theater moments for everyone. Songs this powerful are the kind that really make a show stand out and they help you hardly notice how long the production is. There's never a dull moment.

And for those who saw the original one-act play, you're still going to be surprised with how this story turned out. Sure, the one-act makes you think you know what's going to happen at the end, but the expanded story that Carlo Vergara developed for this musical adds a heck of a lot of back story both before and after what we consider to be the original one-act's story. And more importantly, the additional material is both relevant and well within the tone of the original plus it adds quite a number of unique twists that totally make sense while at the same time completely turning the tables on us.

Long story short, Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady: The Musical is a must-see theater experience and you're missing out a lot if you miss watching this show. Bring your friends, bring your family, and bring the one you hold most dear - everyone is bound to enjoy this show and walk away with more than what they came in with. Thus the show obviously gets 5 silver trampolines out of a possible 5.

And I totally love you, Computer! I really do!

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