The new production of the musical version of “Noli Me Tangere” fuses the creative talents of National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, libretto; Ryan Cayabyab, music; National Artist for Theater, Salvador Bernal, set and costume; Rody Vera, dramaturgy; Katsch Catoy, light design; Agnes Locsin, choreography; Audie Gemora, director; and a pool of young current mainstream stars.
Written over a century ago, the “Noli” continues to keep its relevance to Philippine contemporary society simply because the “cancer” that infected society during Rizal’s time still affects Philippine contemporary life.
How to depict such an appalling continuity that needs immediate rooting out has become the main thrust of the musical. At the outset, it can be said that the production took the task with ease.
The libretto penned by the illustrious guru, Lumbera, was written with fidelity to the original novel emphasizing thematic significance rather than sequential unfolding of action as it actually happens in the novel, as positivists would have it done.
For instance, the patriotic thrust of the novel comes early in the First Act, in the “Azotea” scene, when Maria Clara’s song, the haunting kundiman “Sweet Are the Hours in One’s Native Land (Kay Tamis ng Buhay sa Sariling Bayan)” in the much later “Picnic” scene is scored for a moving duet that at once sets the tone of the musical, and the music almost serves as a recurring theme.
Director Gemora, in his notes, writes that he sought to underscore the novel’s relevance through character depiction and simple staging. He says he met with the librettist and the composer to come up with his sterling version. Appropriate lines written by a seasoned playwright were provided for continuity.
Each character represents a symbol of a prevailing social institution: Kapitan Tiago, the spineless friar-dominated person symbolizing subservience, contrasting directly to Tasyo, the nonconformist sage; the two friars, Damaso and Salvi, exemplars of worldliness and obscurantism; Doña Victorina, colonial mentality; the manangs (tertiary sisters); fanaticism; Sisa, filial love; Elias, armed resistance; Ibarra, liberation of the mind.
The depiction is a projection of a chilling objective reality, a call for its eradication. Renato Constantino had once summoned everyone to the great task of making Rizal “obsolete.” And Gemora echoes Santayana: “Those who do not learn from history are destined [condemned is the right word] to repeat it.”
Cayabyab’s music, set in contemporary pop, eloquently helps in conveying across the text to a receptive young audience, mostly college students and young professionals.
His musical language is easy to digest, as it is clothes in the popular idiom the audience can relate to. Familiar Philippine rhythms such as the lilting paso doble, the tender sway of the kundiman, and a disguised kumintang pulsating in a complex meter, all help in a keen understanding of the musical. The music eloquently serves as vehicle for unfolding the text that flows in a straightforward manner.
Action unfolds on a minimal set, a mono-structured, horizontal ramp, framed by what looks like wide, continuous window of capiz shells reflective of the Antillan-type, bahay-na-bato vintage.
With intelligent cozy lighting, appropriate costume and striking choreography, the stage becomes a telling canvas of the malignant cancer the “Noli” depicts.
Villonco, Mark Bautista
The actors combine both thespic and singing abilities.
Villonco is a standout: a charming, coy Maria Clara gifted with a natural singing voice.
Opposite her is Mark Bautista, a pop heartthrob, who essays his role well, except that his Southern accent betrays the elegance of Lumbera’s prose. Perhaps he should learn to shift gear from plain pop singing, where the voice is flattened and belted out, to stage singing, where it is curved and gathered to gain resonance and resist tiredness.
The rest are equally absorbing. Bodjie Pascua is an imposing Padre Damaso; Al Gatmaitan, a treacherously reserved Padre Salvi; Aireen Antonio, a grotesque Doña Victorina; Garry Lim, a pathetic Don Tiburcio; Jeniffer Villegas, a comely Tia Isabel; Angeli Bayani, a tragic Sisa; Jerald Napoles, a dynamic Elias; and Paolo Rodriguez a despicable leper.
Vocally notable are Sisa, for her pleasing brilliant projection; Kapitan Tiago, with his astounding high note projected with ease; and the two Franciscan friars, with their brilliant resonance.