‘Ang Huling El Bimbo’ breathes drama, nostalgia, and social relevance

If there was one musical force that defined the Philippines in the ‘90s, it would be the Eraserheads, composed of Ely Buendia, Marcus Adoro, Buddy Zabala, and Raimund Marasigan.

‘Ang Huling El Bimbo’  breathes drama, nostalgia, and social relevance
CHILDLIKE WONDER. Martina ‘MJ’ Paz delights the audience with her joyful performance in the third act.
After providing the soundtrack of the nation’s youth and transcending generations through their timeless tunes, it’s only right that their discography be adapted into a musical, like Mamma Mia for ABBA and Rak of Aegis for Aegis.

This dream project came true on July 20, when Ang Huling El Bimbo, a musical featuring many of their songs, premiered on Resort’s World Manila’s stage.

Aside from satisfying and exciting fans of various ages, the play offers a poignant and moving story about friendship, hopes, and dreams, with a heartbreaking depth and criticality that truly befits the Eraserheads oeuvre.

The story follows two narratives. The first takes place in the present day and features Hector, Emman, and Anthony, three estranged friends brought to the police station upon the death of their friend Joy on an eskinita in Ermita (sounds familiar?). The other narrative is a flashback to their college life—starting with their first meeting as roommates, then the development of their friendship, to their first encounter with Joy, up to the fateful night that wrenched them apart, at least until the present day.

It may seem convoluted for a jukebox musical, but can any fan honestly expect the Eraserheads’ work adapted in a shallow, straightforward way?

Director Dexter M. Santos shares, “I’ve been an E-heads fan since high school, where we would constantly play ‘Ligaya’ and ‘Pare Ko’ on our cassette players. It’s been my lifelong dream to create something as special as an original contemporary Filipino musical out of the E-heads discography, which is very wide and tackles various substantial themes … It would have been a disservice to go the simple, nostalgic song-and-dance route.”

Aside from whipping up a plot with substance, the audience will be pleasantly surprised and delighted with some favorites (and even some lesser-known songs!) adapted so cleverly on stage, thanks to the ingenuity of musical director Myke Salomon. Notable examples are “Pare Ko” transformed into a catchy ROTC marching song, “Shirley” sung by the wonderful Sheila Francisco as Tiya Dely in cha-cha and mambo fashion, and (personal favorite) “With a Smile” becoming a haunting, sentimental graduation hymn.

“We wanted to explore different perspectives to flesh out the essence of the songs, and find out which of them would best serve the story,” elaborates Santos, who also serves as the choreographer. “We didn’t want to be slaves to the songs, because really, what we set out to do was tell a good story using the songs.”

Art director Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo adds, “Because we follow two different timelines, the planning stage was important. During our brainstorming sessions, my fellow art director Michael [Stewart], playwright Dingdong [Novenario], musical director Myke, direk Dexter, and I needed index cards and whiteboards charting what went where.”

Since the story is told through a double helix narrative structure and features such a large and talented main cast, it becomes a lot for the audience to take in. Still, the themes that touch upon injustice, corruption, emotional trauma, and gender inequality, make the play set partly in the ‘90s quite timely and relevant. Kudos also to set designer Gino Gonzales and costume designer Marlon Rivera for evoking that colorful and nostalgic yet chaotic feel through the fragmented stage and color-coded clothing.

‘Ang Huling El Bimbo’ breathes drama, nostalgia, and social relevance
Boo Gabunada, Bibo Reyes, and Topper Fabregas as the young Emman, Anthony, and Hector performing ‘Tindahan ni Aling Nena.’
Santos also recalls past experiences that shaped his creative choices: “Vivid memories of ROTC training back when I was in UP Baguio influenced the percussive rendition and troop formations of ‘Pare Ko.’ It became an impassioned, collective rant by these young men instead of the usual inuman monologue told on guitar … ‘Shirley’ and ‘Tikman ang Langit,’ on the other hand, were given cha-cha/mambo and boogie twists, respectively, to highlight Joy’s character who is described as someone who can dance.”

The ensemble cast pulls off all of this, with no weak link to be found. The eight actors who play the young and present-day Joy, Hector, Emman, and Anthony all embody the angst of their story and show such great command of their characters.

Gian Magdangal as present-day Hector, in particular, expresses such compelling emotions with his powerful voice, while Tanya Manalang as young Joy has the charismatic ability to immerse the audience in her whirlwind, and later downward-spiral experiences.

“What’s special about our play is that people of all ages can come see it and, whether they’re already fans of the E-heads or not, experience the music all over again in a completely different way. After all, what’s the point of putting on this show for the current generation if it’s not timely as well as fun?” Manalang says, reflecting the initial enthusiasm of her character, “It was such an enjoyable yet emotional experience working with everyone else.”

Another stand-out is 10-year-old newcomer Martina “MJ” Paz, who shines alongside the rest of the cast in her small but pivotal role near the end. With a bright smile, she opens up about how it felt to perform, “I’m actually very shy, but I love singing and dancing onstage. It was very, very fun.”

It seems the infectious passion the whole cast, crew, and artistic team share has been quite effective. For a musical based mostly on a single song, it succeeded in telling a story of substance all while reintroducing the power of the Eraserheads to the whole audience, who reacted with laughter, gasps, and shock-filled silence during all the appropriate moments in the show. 

Ang Huling El Bimbo does what its team has set out for it to do: it lives and breathes drama, nostalgia, fun, and social relevance.

The nature of a theater production is that it’s constantly evolving, and as it improves and gets cleaner until it ends its run in September, let’s hope the sold out houses are an indication of its lasting influence and return to the stage later on, so more people will be able to experience it. 

What makes the Eraserheads so special isn’t really their legacy on OPM, but their impact on the average person, and this musical is able to do something similar, with just the right amount of tears and laughter on the side.

Catch Ang Huling El Bimbo at Resort’s World Manila until Sept. 2. Tickets are available at TicketWorld.

‘Ang Huling El Bimbo’  breathes drama, nostalgia, and social relevance
The four young leads in front of Toyang’s Canteen.
About the author: Brontë Lacsamana is a 21-year-old film student in UP Diliman. She enjoys reading books, traveling around the country, and meeting extraordinary people. She hopes to write a script that will someday be brought to life onscreen. 

Topics: Eraserheads , Ely Buendia , Marcus Adoro , Buddy Zabala , Raimund Marasigan , Ang Huling El Bimbo , Dexter M. Santos
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