Scene from Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Aurelio Sedisyoso”—book and lyrics by Nicanor Tiongson, music by Joed Balsamo, direction by Chris Millado. David Ezra (third from right) leads the cast as American-era activist playwright Aurelio Tolentino. —PHOTO FROM TANGHALANG PILIPINO
‘Aurelio Sedisyoso’ is a spectacle—a loud and arduous one
The brains behind Tanghalang Pilipino’s award-winning “Mabining Mandirigma” are back with a new musical, “Aurelio Sedisyoso,” a so-called “rock sarswela” dramatizing the life of playwright Aurelio Tolentino during the early years of the American occupation.
So you have to wonder why the only touch of genius in this show comes in the form of spectacle.
The venue, the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Little Theater, which happens to be formally named after the musical’s protagonist, has been upended. Viewers now occupy the stage, most of them on the least ergonomic bleachers, while the set has been erected atop the theater seats.
It’s a daring, against-the-norm layout. But now the challenge for sound designer TJ Ramos is projecting the sound into the stage, and for lighting designer Katsch Catoy, aiming the lights away from it. The result is a production that sounds rugged—in many instances, tone-deaf and deafening—and literally looks dark, obscuring, if not distorting, GA Fallarme’s projections.
These sensory impairments are complemented by Toym Imao’s set: a sprawling, cross-shaped ramp surrounded on all sides by statues on plinths. Is this a Christian grotto? Most likely not, judging by how the whole display is used—or left underused—throughout the show (begging the more basic question: What exactly is all this supposed to be?)
The more urgent problems of this musical, however, go beyond incoherent design elements.
Short of calling it a narrative mess, “Aurelio” is an arduous thing to follow. In its laborious, nearly three-hour running time, metaphors are littered; incidents are crammed between jarring transitions; and various tropes—a scene playing out like a silent film on fast-forward, a rap battle, etc.—are utilized to tell a story that races through its plot points like a horse on steroids.
As it is, the production directed by Chris Millado and written by Nicanor Tiongson feels like a raw first draft in serious need of major whittling.
In fact, the only character that jumps off the page and strikes you as fully flesh and blood is Aurelio himself, played magnificently by David Ezra as an embodiment of the largeness and loudness of this musical’s soul.
Everybody else feels like half-baked portraits—though, yes, Phi Palmos and Kakki Teodoro, as two women who figure prominently in the story, are more corporeal than the rest.
With Joed Balsamo’s music, one needs to return to the branding: “rock sarswela.” And “Aurelio” is definitely more successful, if not more comfortable, with sarswela.
One may even argue that the rock component is lacking, never mind that the musical highlight turns out to be a rap number, ironically; and that the antagonist Tikbalang, a shape-shifting incarnation of Uncle Sam, is visibly ill-fitting in his rock numbers—or at least, as played by the usually excellent Jonathan Tadioan (alternating with screen actor Baron Geisler).
That Balsamo seems to take after Stephen Sondheim in his score’s generous use of dissonance is impressive. But that dissonance as a musical aesthetic is something the cast hasn’t quite grasped yet. And that scattering of bum notes and harmonies is also accompanied by a rather wan interpretation of Denisa Reyes’ choreography.
Brevity and clarity
Many times, one is reminded of “Mabining Mandirigma,” as shades of its success find their way into “Aurelio’s” songs and dances, its orchestrations, and even the basic structure.
But unlike “Mabini,” whose ambitious pageantry was well-matched by an introspective streak, “Aurelio” appears to be all flash and bang, with an inchoate interior.
James Reyes’ costumes, mostly blacks and whites, do wonders in advancing the metaphors, but the instances that work in this production are far outnumbered by the ones that glaringly don’t.
An act of sedition may be the only recourse: a second life for “Aurelio,” perhaps, one that places brevity and clarity above all else? —CONTRIBUTED
“Aurelio Sedisyoso” runs until Sept. 17 at Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, CCP. Visit Ticketworld.com.ph or www.facebook.com/ TanghalangPilipino.