Oct 3, 2017

[Theater] Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag The Musical Review (Grand Leisure Corporation)

I probably don't watch enough original local theater productions as it's admittedly more accessible to me to watch foreign shows being staged here, whether by local companies or touring groups. But I do make an effort to watch shows featuring friends when they reach out and ask for support for their shows.

That's what led me to Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag The Musical, an unexpected stage adaptation for a famous movie that I have also not seen yet. And given how  I usually try to keep various versions of a story separate in my head when writing a review, this helped me view this production solely on its own merits.

Admittedly there were weird circumstances around the viewing we caught as it started almost an hour late and it was our first time at the Kia Theatre, which is definitely not one of my favorite theaters now. So I'm saying I was not in the best state of mind at the start of this production's run.

Synopsis: Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag The Musical is based on the 1970 Edgardo M. Reyes novel of the same name and the 1975 Lino Brocka movie also of the same name. This production by the Grand Theater Leisure Corporation together with the Gantimpala Theater Foundation was directed by Joel Lamangan and staged at the Kia Theatre from September 30 - October 6, 2017.

Julio Madriaga (Armand Ferrer) has just arrived in Manila and he gets a job as a construction worker. There he befriends Atong (Noel Rayos), another worker who shows him some kindness despite the harsh demands of living in the city. It is later revealed that there's a reason why Julio has come to Manila - he's searching for Ligaya (Shiela Martinez/Lara Maigue), the girl he loved back home who went to Manila to study. But he hasn't seen her and for some reason believes that she may be in the house at the corner of Ongpin and Misericordia.

His first real clue is when he sees a woman who resembles Mrs. Cruz (Dulce Cruz/Ima Castro), the woman who brought Ligaya to Manila. But before she can speak to her she starts to call for the police to help her, claiming he's a robber. All the more Julio is encouraged to believe that she's hiding Ligaya from him somehow and it's up to him to find her in Manila.

What I Liked: This musical features one of the largest ensembles I've seen in a while, especially outside touring companies visiting the country. And the choreography by Douglas Nierras is pretty stunning given what he does with the cast, most of whom are clearly skilled dancers. Usually you have a few stand out dancers at the front row who practically lead the numbers but here pretty much everyone brought their A game and that made for some fantastic dance routines.

The musical score was pretty interesting for the most part and there was a serious effort to make the musical practically sung through from beginning to end. The oddly bouncy "Tengkyu, Mrs. Cruz" was a memorable song amid the heavier stuff. And "Sigaw Nang Mangagawa" at the end of Act I could have felt at home in some epic revolutionary tale like Les Misérables. The talented cast also had some great singers who really delivered some emotional performances with individual songs.

What Could Have Been Better: Joel Lamangan is a renowned movie and television director and he has some very impressive awards to his name. But the way this play was staged felt limited by that experience and it was like watching a TV studio with three different set areas on the stage. Most scenes in the play are limited to one of these three zones, making for a weird theatrical experience of the action (and dance numbers) restricted to one side of the stage while the crew are already wheeling in set pieces for the next scene while someone is singing about the troubles and pains in life. Things might make more sense when filming the show with tighter shots but it feels like a waste of the stage as a whole.

It's hard to fully appreciate the story since the initial time and place setting wasn't all that clear and Ligaya, the main love interest and driving force behind Julio's actions is pretty much absent from the bulk of Act I. You don't get that sense of him visiting the street regularly in order to find her and other bits of the narrative are lost time and time again. And given other parts of the story added on for this production, some things don't quite make sense like how Pol (Floyd Tena) falls for Perla (Rita Daniella/Aicelle Santos) but they never actually get to have a real moment of falling in love or showing why Pol would feel so strongly for her. It's like the show could have benefited from subtitles were it a broadcast performance or some other form of tacked on exposition since you can't get that from the play itself. And this inability to use the tools of theater to tell the story is what hurts the show the most and what makes the gathered talent feel like such a waste.

TL;DR: Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag The Musical may not have quite the same impact of the original movie but in may have been inadvertently staged and directed in a manner very similar to it. See it for the big ensemble performances, but prepare yourself for a 3 hour long theatrical experience in order to get to the end. Thus the musical gets 2 stage-limited dance numbers out of a possible 5.

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