In an interview months ago, director Nonon Padilla said he would challenge any member of the audience to have a dry eye once “Lorenzo,” a rock opera on the indio Lorenzo Ruiz who died for his faith in 17th-century Japan, closes its curtain.
The challenge is well-founded, and in truth it is the soaring music of composer Ryan Cayabyab and the book and lyrics by Juan Ekis, Paul Dumol and Joem Antonio that make this production rise to emotional heights. The affecting performances of the cast who spend 80 percent of their time singing on stage give it extra wings.
The story is simple enough. Laurence (OJ Mariano), an OFW awaiting execution in the Middle East for killing his employer who had raped him, finds solace and meaning in the life of Lorenzo, the patron saint of the Filipino diaspora. This former theater artist who did not find any recognition in his homeland creates what may be his last opus by writing a musical about his holy namesake. The play-within-a-play unveils the life story of the saint, and becomes the means by which Laurence reconnects with his religious roots.
The parallel between the sufferings of the two Lorenzos is all-too-obvious. Horrific incidents drive them to kill (the play speculates that a Spaniard did something horrific to Lorenzo’s family, hence his extreme act of revenge). Then, their quest for a better life in another country take a turn for the worse, with their conviction almost like an act of injustice. They struggle with alienation from their family and country. And, finally, they are able to renew their faith—but have to pay the ultimate price for that conversion.
Just in case the audience does not get the point, the reporter (Camille Lopez-Molina) interviewing Laurence connects the dots for them.
The thin plot as written is a show-and-tell. Certain premises already established, and characters defined from the beginning, could do without much more exposition or soul-searching. Do not expect any intellectual discourse that dissects the clash of the personal and the political, such as those that can be found in plays like Robert Bolt’s “A Man for All Seasons.”
The four Spanish missionaries who take Lorenzo in after he escapes from the Philippines and boards a boat that he thought would take him to the safety of Saipan are noble priests who are martyrdom material. In his time, Lorenzo was a member of an oppressed race who had to strike back. Laurence, meanwhile, has to endure the archetypal OFW sufferings—the drug addiction of a son, for instance, and the unfaithfulness of his wife.
The progression of the plot is even stated by Laurence as he describes the play-within-the-play. Act One is about Lorenzo’s escape to Japan and his subsequent imprisonment. Act Two examines the possible reasons why he killed the Spaniard. Act Three goes deeper into his and Laurence’s shared conversions.
There is no surprise or complicated twist. The audience knows what to expect.
But the beauty of “Lorenzo” lies in the music and libretto. Until Act Three, what could have been predictable storytelling transcends to become one stunning musical declaration after another. There is hardly a wrong note or a melodramatic word. The characters bare their hearts—and the authenticity of it all, given life through the poetry of the lyrics, resonates on stage and connects on a very intimate level with the audience.
From the time Lorenzo’s wife (Shiela Valderrama) weeps at his leaving and wishes for his safety in a foreign land, the play hits its stride. Even without a huge cast, the musical face-off between the Christian missionaries and their Japanese tormentors clearly draw the lines between light and darkness.
And just when you thought the power of the piece couldn’t go higher, the real emotional payoff comes in the Third Act. Here is where Laurence finally makes his connection with Lorenzo as the Everyman. This is where the play also makes its most piercing point—that Juan dela Cruz, who has lived a very hard life and has no claim to fame, valor or glory, discovers the best part of himself when he is confronted with difficult choices.
One is hard-pressed not to empathize with the plight of these two gentlemen. They never asked for much in life, and suddenly they are thrust into very unpleasant situations that would break greater men. But to paraphrase some of the lyrics, it is extreme pain and torture that exposes what truly lies in the heart of a man.
Surrender and strength
Lorenzo’s inner struggle about whether to renounce his God reminds one of the agony in “Jesus Christ Superstar’s” blockbuster number “Gethsemane,” but without the anger and outrage. The decision of Fray Antonio (Juliene Mendoza) to prevail through the torture, if only to set himself as an example and inspiration to Lorenzo and his fellow priests, is surrender and strength in slow motion.
And Lorenzo’s own yielding to the Almighty is a humble act made into a sublime communion; this particular piece is an act of worship that can fit seamlessly into an actual Catholic Mass or Protestant service.
One of the penultimate songs of the ensemble can even rival “Les Miserables”’ “Do You Hear the People Sing?” in scale, depth and emotional wallop. This becomes the anthem of Filipinos, past and present, in “Lorenzo”—only, this time, it is neither a battle cry for the storming of the Bastille nor for attacking the barricades. Rather, it is the resolved, moving testament of a broken-but-unbowed people who will continue to move on and reach for their piece of Heaven, regardless of the storms that come their way.
Padilla’s direction complements the way that the musicality carries the play from one emotional high to another. Even sans the songs, some of the most moving scenes are the ones that are underplayed, such as Fray Antonio’s passing of the baton to Lorenzo, and Lorenzo’s goodbye to the priests who had taken him in.
Padilla’s signature visual flair is still present, though, especially in the scenes that emphasize the fearsome power of the Japanese lords and their ruthless torture of their prisoners. The small stage does seem to limit the scale of the production, making one wonder how Padilla would have rendered a more epic version of it on a larger stage such as the CCP Main Theater.
The small production scale, though, does not detract from the epic spirit of “Lorenzo.” In truth, the musicality of the piece makes it epic. Without in any way denigrating the performances of the cast and the treatment of the director, one can simply close one’s eyes, lean back and enjoy the wave of passion and emotion as they cascade like waves from the stage.
“Lorenzo” has remaining performances today, 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., at the SDA Theater, College of St. Benilde. It will then be toured in various schools and restaged at CCP. Visit Ticketworld or www.lorenzorocks.com.