I may not be an expert armchair movie or play critic, but I am an avid fan of this art form. I make it a point to watch at least one theatrical body of work every year. Unfortunately, the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) broke my live-viewing streak. But as luck would have it, ABS-CBN Entertainment streamed “Ang Huling El Bimbo” on YouTube a week ago. Ergo, my streak of watching one play per year still lives on.
As each scene was enacted and each song was sung, I couldn’t help but recall and relive my high school days. Sure, I may not be a “90s” kid”, but my classmates and I would jam to Eraserheads’ hits such as “Pare Ko” and “Ang Huling El Bimbo”, during lunch break. This was back in the 2010s, which just goes to show the impact of the iconic rockband’s music on many Filipinos, regardless of which year they were born or which era they belonged.
However, as I got deeper and deeper into the play, the lyrics of the songs took on drastically new shades of meaning. I don’t mean this in terms of the actual words. If anything, the lyrics of “With a Smile” were left unchanged. However, as Joy sang this song in the opening scene of Act 2, the song was neither as uplifting nor as happy as I had remembered it to be. Now I understand why there were distorting drugged sound effects in the intro of “Alapaap”. I also came to understand how the lines of “Spoliarum” could be interpreted as a dark portrayal of our society. Finally, hearing “Ang Huling El Bimbo” in a different light, led me to grasp it as one of the most tragic songs written by Ely Buendia (FUN FACT: It only took him 5 minutes to write that obra maestra).
Honestly, there’s so much information to soak in yet so little room to write and piece them all together. Having said this, here are some of my major takeaways after getting off from the two-and-a half-hour ’Ang Huling El Bimbo’ rollercoaster of a ride.
- PH Theater is Getting There
Before we delve into the actual plot and key moments of the story, allow me to commend Philippine Theater for having stepped up its game. This was the first 100% Pinoy production I watched, and I’ve gotta say, Philippine theater has beautifully evolved. We may be miles away from Broadway (literally and figuratively), but we’ve got mad talent back home. Performing arts is one of the most overlooked skills among Filipinos, but after reading through the audience’s tweets and comments, the trajectory that we’re taking is the right one. We’re slowly keeping up with Broadway’s standards while maintaining the distinct and uniquely Filipino elements. These include the local Pinoy settings (Toyang’s Canteen, Antipolo, University of the Philippines, etc.), the characters, and of course, the music. Major props to the Philharmonic Orchestra for curating the musical’s soundtrack using classic EHeads songs.
I’m an avid believer in the saying “I find great talent when I see it”. Back in my college years, I would see some of my batchmates participate in our school’s various theater and performing arts organizations. They had so much potential and promise. Theater, as a medium, connects a story to its audience in a powerful way. And the story is brought to life by the actors onstage. After watching dozens of plays, I can honestly say that many young aspiring actors have animated varied and riveting stories. Indeed, Philippine theater holds much promise.
- The Antithesis of Her Name
Ok, it’s SPOILERS GALORE from hereon. For those who got the opportunity to see this play online, I am guessing that our hearts sank for Joy Manawari. You saw that scene, right? Not THAT scene which ended Act 1 (I honestly don’t wanna talk about it), but that somber look on Joy and the three amigos’ faces at the beginning of Act 2. That was the last time I saw Joy really live by her name. She just had her dignity destroyed a few days before her BFFs’ big day. Yet she didn’t have any resentment in her heart. Neither did she show any bitterness towards her friends. There were no “shoulda, coulda, wouldas” blurted out. Heck, she did not even blame Hector Zabala for the “joyride” that led to her disgrace. She could’ve hated them for life. I mean, they brought her into this mess in the first place, right? Yet she did them one last favor by gifting them with handcrafted graduation mementos. Indeed, she got by that shameful hour “With a Smile”.
It went downhill from there. I don’t wanna recall what happened afterwards. All I know is that the graduation day, which was supposed to be a happy celebration, ironically became the most painful moment in the entire play. Never mind the exploitative Banlaoi and his abusive actions with which she had to put up for years. Forget the many guys who played her during her descent into hell. Heck, that ending scene in Act 1, as violent as it was, doesn’t even come close to the shocking silence among the four friends. She never saw her friends after that day. On one hand, the old Joy died many years later as a victim to a hit-and-run in that dark corner which Ely referred to in the title song (“At isang gabi’y nasagasaan sa madilim na eskinita”). On the other hand, the young Joy died on that stage in her plaid yellow dress. All the hope and joy in her eyes went to s*** after that heartbreaking moment. Indeed, she became the antithesis of her name.
- Long-Time Friendships and Healthy Relationships are our Lifelines Amidst Pain and Heartbreak.
They say the one of the ways to get by in this world is through the human connections that we forge. Businessmen, tycoons, media personnel, HRs, you name it. For her part, Joy did not have any of these at her disposal. She only had Emman Azarcon, AJ Cruz, Jr. and Hector Zabala to cling on. She helped Emman shoot his shot to his girlfriend from Canada. She accepted AJ for coming out, which unlike today, was difficult to do during the 90s. And she loved Hector purely and genuinely. Simply put, she “stayed through the bad times”, even if she had to “fetch them everyday”. Unfortunately, when it was her turn to cry out for help, none of them showed up. Not one of them had the balls to be a “Good Samaritan” toward their closest “girl friend”. She needed them during her lowest point, yet none of them heeded her cry for help. By the time the three reconciled and resolved to see Joy, it was too late.
There are way too many lessons in this musical dramedy. But if there’s one major lesson that stuck with me, it is that long-time friendships and healthy relationships are super important, especially in this all too often cold and cruel world. It need not be with a significant other. My main point is that when someone you’ve held near and dear is desperately in need of help, you gotta at least try to be there for him/her. Schedules are a lot hectic in the “adulting” world, but it wouldn’t kill you to say a simple “Kamusta” (how are you doing) to that longtime friend of yours. Of course not all of us are blessed to have “close friends”, which makes close family relationships all the more important. We saw a glimpse of this when an already battered and jaded Joy spends time with her daughter, Ligaya and her Tiya Dely who took great care of her since her younger days. Indeed, the family is the last line of defense when s*** hits the fan. They’re the only ones with whom you can be completely honest. They will be there for you when the others fail to show up. They will die for you, as we saw Joy do for her precious Ligaya.
- Ligaya’s Future Looks Bleak (but we can still change that)
Speaking of Ligaya, what now? “Paano na siya” (What will happen to her)? I know this is just a play and the characters are completely fictional, but to be completely blunt about it, this social commentary is utterly reflective of real-life. Ligaya embodies the future generation, and how we are robbing them of the life they should be living: a healthy, prosperous life full of love and promise. This abuse and injustice done towards these kids break my heart and shake me to my core. No amount of “Sorries” and “Babawi Ako” (I’ll make it up to you)by Hector will ever be enough for the damage that was done to her mother, her Tiya Dely (grandmother) and to Ligaya, herself. She deserved better. This generation deserves better. Emman, Hector and AJ’s cathartic absolution may have softened the blow, but the restorative justice which Joy and her family never got still doesn’t sit well with me.
I’ve got news for you guys, though. This doesn’t have to end this way. Ligaya’s future, and with her, those of thousands of Filipino youth, can still be changed. We don’t have to go full-SJW (Social Justice Warriors). Maybe all we need is at least a fraction of Young Emman, Hector and AJ’s youthful energy when they first arrived in UP. I know it requires us to be ambitious, but maybe, just maybe, magiging maLigaya ang kinabukasan ni Ligaya (Ligaya’s future will be a happy one). “In a world where everybody hates a happy ending story”, this is one ending for which we Filipinos can all aspire.
- FINAL VERDICT: 8/10
Honestly, as much as this world-class production was overshadowed by such a tragic plot twist, I still have to give credit where it’s due. I give my kudos to Director Dexter Santos and his entire production team. They really made sure everyone worked hard and stood out in this play. Yep, even the ensemble deserve a lot of credit for not just being “in the background”, but for really making their presence felt during their own shining moments (check this vlog out to know what it feels like to be an ensemble member).
As I mentioned earlier, the storyline still could’ve been improved. Inasmuch as I appreciate the many socio-economic and political issues tackled in this play, I felt that these were merely presented as facts rather than explored more deeply in the play’s dialogues and discourse. It was an awesome experience joining along the ride when it came to the evolution of the three amigos’ character development. However, Joy’s post-trauma perspective could have been expounded so that we could have felt more deeply, the angst and agony which tore at her head and her heart. Ligaya’s ending did not sit well with me, as well as with a lot of viewers who were tweeting live while this play was being streamed. This is the reason why I did not give it a full 10. Then again, unanswered questions may have been the point of the play. In its ambiguity, it leaves room for us to think of how the choices we shall make today and in the future, will determine whether the justice we seek in the play will be the justice which we will live out in our real lives, as we go and search for happy endings.
Overall, I really enjoyed the experience. This was the play we needed to see at this period in our history. Sana hindi ito “Ang Huling El Bimbo” para sa teatro at musikang Pinoy (Hopefully this is not the last dance for Philippine Theater and Music).