The audience, we must say, was held spellbound at the way the ensemble was able to sustain its energy in singing and dancing to unmistakable performanc level with nary a downbeat or a strained note as if watching them perform fresh as ever for the first time.
Last Sunday, the finale performance of the musical theater Obra Ni Juan by the Phil. Stagers Foundation (PSF), was staged to a bursting capacity at the auditorium of St. Scholastica’s College, Manila. The presentation was multi-media which incorporated film clips and footage on the life, nationalist struggle, and controversial tragic love affair of the greatest Filipino painter, Juan Luna.
On a verifiable record, said musical oeuvre in the past months has been performed by the PSF under the direction of its Artistic Director, Atty. Vince Tañada to unprecedented critical and box-office acclaim for a total of 400 performances.
Each performance, mostly pre-sold, averages from 1,000 to over 2, 000 spectators when recently showcased in schools and universities of Greater Manila Area and the provinces of Central Luzon, selected cities in Region 10 of Mindanao, including Dumaguete City in the Visayas.
Now it can be told that PSF’s is into their 17th year of active and professional existence in the realm of staging original musical theater. These were performed annually in the key cities and provinces throughout the country with unprecedented success in terms of wider audience reach and critical acclaim.
In connection with the said finale presentation, Asia’s King of Talk Boy Abunda of ABS-CBN’s long-running public service program and entertainment talk show host of The Bottomline and Tonight With Boy Abunda, respectivley, was the featured special guest that memorable night. Like a breath of fresh air, Boy delivered an inspirational message after the show which he did with his usual panache and instinctive sharpness. This he did also in his capacity as spokesperson of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). True to his being the darling of the entertainment press, Boy was warmly swarmed early on and after his brief, though prescient appearance onstage by close friends from the movie press led by former entertainment editor of Manila Bulletin, Crispina Martinez-Belen and among others.
Humility aside, this writer was complemented with the description “The Great George Vail” by Boy onstaged, acknowledging me in passing as one of his friends who witnessed his theater beginnings in his salad days with the legendary Madame Conchita Sunico at the MET (Metropolitan Theater), which was then his training ground.
Boy also thanked the rest of the entertainment press, in particular his theater mentor-guru Frank Rivera, who tagged along his PETA colleague Gardy Labad. Filmmakers and friends of Director Tañada came to grace the event as well, namely Directors Ronald Carballo, Emman dela Cruz, Arman Reyes, photographer Mars Lu, production designer non-pareil Ben Payumo including movie actor Menggie Cobarrubias and emerging star Tori Garcia.
Back then, Boy had directed several plays and events to which this author was privy and even to this time staying at the ringside of his talk shows where he is the indispensable co-actor, stimulating and interacting organically with the motley characters from all walks of life of said long-running talk shows.
Boy Abunda spoke with deep sincerity from his heart transforming himself instantly into an endemic, empathetic part of the members of PSF poised onstage, and all enthralled at the moment listening up to him in glowing and encouraging terms as he was and still is a theater person by definition and reckoning.
Yet, Boy somehow apologized for not keeping up with the 17 years of active existence of PSF in the realm of staging original musical theater deep in social and historical content with ummistakeable political correctness and unimpeachable production values. Director Tañada pointed out, “I must say that not one company in the theater circuit of Manila- centrist theater productions can lay claim to PSF’s achievement in the way of reaching wider sectors of society, e.g., students, professionals, and local constituents.” The said musical’s ultra-nationalist content which integrated epic and Brechtian theater with the bravura of Broadway staging was definitely an all-time box-office hit play to date, according to the multi-awarded director, who was previously, among others, a Star Awards Best New Male Actor awardee of the Philippine Movie Press Club (PMPC) for Elwood Perez’ film Otso.
Tañada’s take, however, brought to the ephemeral world by the brilliance of Pipo Cifra’s musical score and genius librettist Vince Tanada, playing the role of Juan Luna himself is far ample distinctively unique from its earlier generic versions.
The actors with powerful voices breathed life and “guts out” into their songs and competently choreographed dances despite the theater’s lack of mechanical and lighting contrivances to enhance the scene changes. However, the total charm and magic of a “Broadway” musical was palpably dripping all over the warm and malleable bodies of the actors all over the stage.
The PSF as a theater company, including Director Tañada and some of his actors have been bestowed early on the distinctive global online Broadway World Awards including a slew of local awards from Aliw Awards Foundation.
What could be the secret behind their unfailing energies? Director Tañada disclosed: “The actors charged their sustained energies to the so-called “acting inspiration,” a take-off from the tenets of the great Russian acting guru Konstantin Stanislavski. They, however, have different techniques or approaches in getting at it, like meditation, affective memory recall, Yoga, deep breathing, systematic desensitization, and the like. Steroid is a big no-no.”
Said creative energies were descernible even to the last bit rolers from a cast of 100 actors. Remarkable performances included, among others, Johnrey Rivas as Jose Rizal, Jomar Bautista as Antonio Luna, Cindy Liper as Paz Pardo de Tavera, Adelle Ibarrientos as Juliana Pardo de Tavera, child actor Dean Benedict Rafols as Andres “Luling” Luna, JP Lopez as Marcelo H. del Pilar, Patrick Libao as Juan Luna 1 and alter ego to Vince Tañada as Juan Luna 2.
Tañada recalled that said musical was staged in Badoc, Ilocos Norte where Juan Luna was born. He said, “The Luna descendants showed up and thanked us profusely for coming out with the play that made an objective interpretation of the extreme fit of jealousy that led Juan to shoot dead his wife Paz and mother-in-law Juliana Pardo de Tavera, and wounding his brother-in-law Felix who tried to intervene. It also showed the not so well-known nationalist acts and participation of Juan Luna during the revolution. Juan Luna was acquitted by the Spanish court due to momentary insanity. The mother and daughter were survived by an only son Andres Pardo de Tavera –Luna.”
Tañada concluded, “On the other hand, not one among the Pardo de Tavera descendants had shown up thus far to watch the musical. Probably, recreating the controversial cause of the murder of their progenitors onstage does not sit well with the Pardo de Taveras. Or perhaps they have not as yet forgiven Juan, our country’s colossal pride and the greatest Filipino painter up to this time for the crime of passion that he had committed? Or some other well-founded reasons that only them were privy to?”
In all, Obra Ni Juna was more than nostalgic as it was magical transporting viewers to the turbulent world of Filipino Progandists in Europe the likes of Marcelo H. Del Pilar, Dr. Jose Rizal, Trinidad Tavera, Juan and Antonio Luna, particularly in Madrid, vis-a-vis the raging revolutionary forces back home led by Andres Bonifacio, as inspired by Rizal’s novels “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” and the “Spoliarium, ” the iconic major prize winning painting of Juan Luna, brother to the slained General Antonio Luna.