When a midsummer thunderstorm on Wednesday afternoon struck Metro Manila and nearby provinces, it was like a cue from above. It was a few minutes before the Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) was to present to media and show buyers the new cast members of its original rock musical, the smash hit “Rak of Aegis.”
“Rak” has had 206 shows since its first run in early 2014. Now on its fifth run, it aims for 82 shows, from June 17 to Aug. 28—or 10 shows a week.
That kind of punishing schedule necessitates two or three performers alternating in the lead roles. The new show will have Tanya Manalang and Alisah Bonaobra playing the lead character Aileen (alternating with Aicelle Santos and Kim Molina); Carla Laforteza and Tricia Jimenez as barangay captain Mary Jane; Vince Lim as Aileen’s passive suitor Kenny; Jon Santos as shrewd businessman-villain Fernan; and Joann Co as Mercy.
Manalang is coming in fresh from her two-year stint playing Kim in the West End production of “Miss Saigon.” She admitted not having seen “Rak” yet, since she left Manila for London three months before “Rak” opened on Jan. 31, 2014.
“But I’ve been hearing great stuff about it,” she noted. “It has sparked interest even among Filipinos abroad. The character [of Aileen] intrigues me. Her songs are amazing and arranged brilliantly. She has attitude that I really love—no damsel in distress.”
Upon hearing from colleague and friend Shiela Valderrama —who began playing “Kapitana” Mary Jane in 2015—that Peta was looking for a new Aileen, Manalang said she auditioned “without batting an eyelash.”
It was a good thing her contract with “Miss Saigon” was over, so she packed her bags —and got the part. “Rak” is her first Filipino-language production and also her debut appearance with Peta.
Before “Miss Saigon,” Manalang had appeared in the Resorts World Manila productions of “The King and I” as Tuptim; “The Sound of Music” as Liesl Von Trapp; and in “Kaos” as Giselle.
Bonaobra, meanwhile, revealed a tidbit that melted hearts: “Dati lang po akong nagbebenta ng ticket ng ‘Rak of Aegis’ through OPM (Organisasyon ng Pilipinong Mang-aawit, one of the show buyers); hindi ko po ini-expect na ngayon ako na ’yung [isa sa mga] nasa ticket.”
Bonaobra’s life, in the words of “Rak” director Maribel Legarda, “has an Aileen-like story.”
In “Rak,” Aileen shoots to fame through a YouTube video of her singing against the backdrop of her perennially flooded village, Barangay Venezia.
Bonaobra was the “Filipino girl” singing Disney’s “Let It Go” at a Manila mall videoke corner whose video, taken by a Danish man in June 2014, became viral. It now has about 1.6 million views.
At the time, no one knew she was a scholar at St. Scholastica’s College Conservatory of Music. But because of that video, she was “discovered” and went on to win major prizes in “The Voice of the Philippines” and in the recently concluded duet singing contest in “Eat Bulaga” where she was paired with Aicelle Santos, the original Aileen.
On a whim, Bonaobra told her “Ate Aicelle” she wanted to experience theater. Santos urged her to audition for her role. When she got the part, the newbie couldn’t believe it, saying, “Aileen agad?”
Popular stand-up comedian-lounge performer Jon Santos, for his part, auditioned for the role of Fernan, the bad guy played by Nor Domingo and Julienne Mendoza in the previous runs, because he said he wanted to act for Peta and be part of “Rak.”
“Literally first time ako nakatuntong sa stage ng Peta,” he said on Wednesday night. “In the past, I was just part of the audience, having seen three ‘Rak’ shows with different sets of cast members.”
He is “super grateful” to be part of “Rak” because it is a “complete, full-circle” production compared to previous shows he had appeared in: “‘Dogeaters’ also had a sociopolitical theme, but was a straight play; ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ had great songs but was not in Filipino. And ‘Bituing Walang Ningning’ had good OPM songs but no sociopolitical undertones.”
Early this year, when Laforteza got a call from musical director Myke Salomon, she thought she would be invited to join “Rak.” But it was for Peta’s Francis Magalona musical “3 Stars and a Sun,” which marked her first foray into Filipino material. But, to show her persistence, during rehearsals, she recalled singing “‘3 Stars’ songs with a ‘Rak of Aegis’ attack.”
For Tricia Jimenez, a theater actress who was part of landmark productions such as “Magsimula Ka” and “Katy,” but who has since devoted her time to her kids and family, getting asked to audition for “Rak” was “a dream come true.” When she asked permission from her husband, businessman Butch Jimenez, to join the production, he said: “’Yung mga anak natin, andyan lang sila, pero ’yung ‘Rak of Aegis,’ baka last na ’yan.”
Former Kundirana and Ryan Cayabyab Singers member Vince Lim, on the other hand, has been part of our subconscious since he played the cute, nerdy scientist Henyotik in Carlo Vergara’s “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.” Playing Kenny is a tough act to follow, with Salomon and Poppert Bernadas having alternated in the role for the past 206 “Rak” shows. But Lim said he is thankful that, while he auditioned for another part, he is getting to play Kenny instead.
Director Maribel Legarda said being part of “Rak” has been a lucky break for many. Their acclaimed turns in the show, for instance, led to the now flourishing TV-movie careers of Jerald Napoles and Pepe Herrera, who both played Tolits; and Molina, who has gone on to TV work and more lead parts in musicals such as “Manhid” and “Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady.”
For the other women in the cast, Legarda said there have been five who have given birth since “Rak” began, and “I think there’s more to come in the next few months.”
Peta’s “Rak of Aegis” runs June 17-Aug. 28 at Peta Theater Center, Quezon City. Call 8919999, 7526244, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.