In what is perhaps the most iconic scene from the 1982 Ishmael Bernal classic, “Himala,” a youngish Nora Aunor summons a multitude of villagers to a barren hilltop and delivers the film’s most memorable line: “Walang himala!”
And yet, three decades after, the brand-new stage adaptation of this classic film feels no less than a miracle in the flesh.
“Himala, Isang Musikal” is the result of a groundbreaking collaboration between 9 Works Theatrical and The Sandbox Collective, and succeeds the original 2003 production that premiered at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
Elsa (Aicelle Santos in the part originated by Aunor) is a simple barrio lass living in the drought-plagued town of Cupang. During a solar eclipse, she claims to have witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and proceeds to perform extraordinary healing acts that catapult her to celebrity status in the otherwise sleepy village.
Soon, the townsfolk begin to capitalize on her wondrous deeds, selling religious articles, collecting monetary contributions, and even building a rickety shrine in her honor. Everything is shattered, however, when an unutterable tragedy befalls Elsa and her friend Chayong (Neomi Gonzales).
With praiseworthy runs in “Katy” and “Rak of Aegis,” Santos’ portrayal of Elsa takes us on the breathless 360-degree journey of a rural girl unwillingly thrust into a messianic role, matched by a formidable set of pipes that scale even the most punishing heights of the score.
She finds noteworthy support in two characters. First, Kakki Teodoro’s multifaceted Nimia, Elsa’s former childhood friend who resorts to prostitution; and second, Bituin Escalante’s reticent depiction of Elsa’s mother, content to stand at the sidelines until desperation drives her to overpower the maddening crowd.
Gonzales’ crystal-clear soprano also shines during her duets with suitor Pilo (Sandino Martin), while David Ezra showcases his hearty tenor as the photographer attempting to chronicle the bizarre phenomenon.
Director Ed Lacson Jr. takes a fresh, visceral approach to “Himala,” foregoing microphones, utilizing a single piano for accompaniment, and leaving an empty space at the center of the stage, thus allowing full focus on the actors.
As set designer, he stays faithful to the musical’s native roots, transforming the Power Mac Center Spotlight into an arid landscape of barren trees and yellowed grass. The audience members sit beneath bamboo awnings, seemingly protected from the scourge of the elements, with ramshackle fences serving as a literal fourth wall.
Ultimately, these barriers break down and we become one with the powerful ensemble, moving in a massive heap and entreating Elsa to lift the suffering of everyone else. One wonders, then: Are we mere voyeurs preying on the townspeople’s blind adoration, or are we unknowing accomplices to their hysteria and eventual downfall?
Ricky Lee’s thought-provoking script forces us to ask these questions, accompanied by the haunting, lilting melody of Vincent de Jesus. More than the songs and the dialogues, the production cleverly makes use of the intervening silences, as though it were God himself speaking through the muffled echoes of the wind.
In “Himala,” it is easy to recognize all-too-familiar scenes in Pinoy society: the sensationalism of faith healers; the preferential treatment of rich devotees; a mayor raking in support for the next elections; the superficial piety of those who pray during the day and party at night.
Such contrast between saint and sinner is magnified in the production’s costumes. While Elsa and her “disciples” are almost always decked in virginal white, Nimia and her ilk are clad in garish outfits during their bawdy numbers.
The musical ends with a recapitulation of the famous scene in the film. Santos, both broken and redeemed, ascends the wooden dais and fearlessly renders Aunor’s trademark monologue. In 1980s Cupang, miracles are hard to come by—but here we are, blessed with a production that may well be a true theatrical miracle of our time. —CONTRIBUTED
The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical’s “Himala, Isang Musikal,” directed by Ed Lacson Jr., runs until March 4 at Power Mac Center Spotlight, Level 2, Circuit, Makati City. Call 8919999.