Finally, “Mabining Mandirigma” sounds like an actual musical.
Which is to say the current staging—the Tanghalang Pilipino warhorse’s fourth run at the Cultural Center of the Philippines—is far and away its best version yet.
The reason is mostly because of Ejay Yatco who, in the span of six years, has accumulated a body of work that includes the hit Sugarfree musical “Sa Wakas,” the original song cycle “Real-Life Fairytales,” a luminous “Spring Awakening” at Ateneo de Manila University earlier this year, and even a stint as the piano-playing double to Teroy Guzman’s Beethoven in Red Turnip Theater’s “33 Variations.”
Yatco now takes over from composer Joed Balsamo as “Mabini’s” musical director—and under his ministrations, the show has transformed from what sounded like capable but weakly sung play-with-music into a glorious aural spectacle.
The singing here is full-bodied and precise, which only further highlights just how difficult Balsamo’s music actually is. The score is filled with odd rhythms, dissonant tones, lengthy passages in counterpoint—all of which the performers execute with newfound clarity.
Woman as titular hero
Part of the reason must also be the new blood teeming in the ensemble of this “steampunk” dramatization of the life of Apolinario Mabini, which initially hit the headlines for its casting of a woman as the titular hero. (Only seven of the 21 cast members from the musical’s 2015 premiere remain.)
Phi Palmos is now the young Mabini—and affectingly so. Meynard Peñalosa is the feathered-and-frocked Mark Twain, transforming one of the musical’s dives into meta and irony into a true diva moment. Paw Castillo is the surprise standout in his new role as Mabini’s bumpkinish assistant Pepe.
And then there’s the new adult Mabini—Monique Wilson, who returns to Philippine musical theater after playing Anna Leonowens in “The King and I” at Resorts World Manila seven years ago.
Compared to Mabini’s past, Wilson is neither more meticulous with the role’s physicality nor vocally more impressive. But what she brings to the table is the present-day, thinking Filipino’s Mabini—an acting intensity that fleshes out the character’s tiredness and frustrations, only the heartless wouldn’t be moved to tears at some point.
Wilson is the embodiment of dignified defeat. Her Mabini’s battles with the powers that be are obviously futile from the get-go, which makes her second-act lamentation, titled—quite accurately—“Mahirap bang Mag-isip Bilang Pilipino?” (sung immediately after the assassination of Antonio Luna), an inadvertent battle cry for our times.
To some extent, you can even say “Mabini” has returned at the perfect time, the country halfway through an administration of lies and cronyism. The musical, then, becomes a sort of looking back to where it all started—to where the power balance in this modern country was first manipulated by its own citizens to favor the rich and privileged. Watching those scenes where the first Filipino politicians lick the feet of a foreign state, you would almost think they were depictions of the Philippines circa 2019.
Inside the theater, “Mabini” has now unlocked splendid-work-of-art status. But right after curtain call, it remains, more than ever, a reminder that the fight for justice in its myriad forms is far from over. —CONTRIBUTED
“Mabining Mandirigma” has remaining performances today and tomorrow, Sept. 1, at Tanghalang Aurelio Tolentino, Cultural Center of the Philippines. Direction by Chris Millado; libretto by Nicanor Tiongson. ticketworld.com.ph