#Review: Ang Huling El Bimbo: A nostalgic cavalcade of theatrical melody

Written by Danielle Jorge Malantic
Photos by Janine Liwanag

Photo by Janine Liwanag.

At its heart, Ang Huling El Bimbo delivers a nostalgic throwback to the nineties through its masterful incorporation of Eraserheads songs. Despite some pacing and writing issues, it manages to deliver an experience that makes one wistful of times long gone.

Ang Huling El Bimbo is a jukebox musical based on the songs of the Eraserheads, written by Pisay Batch ’96 graduate Dingdong Novenario. Pisay faculty members, along with students from various clubs and the Godchild program, were given sponsored tickets for a showing last August 25 as part of a fundraising event by Batch ’96 for the benefit and improvement of Burgos Central School’s library and various Pisay facilities and projects.

Going into the musical, I did not know exactly what to expect. While familiar with the Eraserheads’ music, I never did manage to make it a part of my daily listening apart from two songs, one of them being the eponymous Ang Huling El Bimbo.

Peace it Together

The musical centers around three friends: Hector, Anthony and Emman. First meeting at their shared dormitory, we follow them through their college life; studying, pining over crushes, and ROTC training. Subsequently, we get to see their friendship with Joy, the niece of the diner owner Tiya Dely. As we see their bonds strengthen, one night before graduation shatters their friendship, whereupon they move on with their lives, eventually having to figure out how to pick up the pieces of what they left behind.

Using the classic songs of the Eraserheads, the musical masterfully weaves together each of its scenes under their lyrics. Indeed, it felt as if each song was made for the musical, for none of them seemed out of place. Each song is placed with care, and the focus and tone of the songs matched perfectly with what went on in the scenes.

Of particular note is how they transformed songs such as “Balikbayan Box,” “With A Smile,” and “Ligaya” from happy-sounding, if a bit melancholic, into full-blown tunes of despondency. Under the helm of the orchestra, the set list of songs was portrayed with elegance and mastery.

Of course, the songs would be nothing without the assistance of the set construction and stage clothes. The props used such as the car and picture frame were handled beautifully, with each prop used having purpose in the environment constructed. The set itself felt as if one was looking at a memory, with the panels of wood at the sides feeling as if one was feeling the remnants of something broken, accompanied by the background projections and revolving stage. Most importantly, the clothes worn by the cast felt appropriate for the era the musical was set in, assisting heavily in building the believability of the characters.

Furthermore, the choreography used by the cast truly brought the Eraserheads’ music to life. One could truly see the time and effort poured into their movements, shown through the synchronicity of their steps. The sing-along nature of the Eraserheads’ songs was beautifully translated into the dance moves employed by the cast.

These elements were wonderfully encompassed by what I would consider to be the best part of the musical: its rendition of “Pare Ko.” Scorned in love, our three friends, dressed in army fatigues along with the rest of their squadmates, perform what would be best described as a military training exercise akin to those conducted by the ROTC. By transforming “Pare Ko” into a military tune, chanted by the cast in military outfits, while using props such as rifles and flags, the scene cemented itself as the highpoint of the musical.

But perhaps the greatest strength of the musical was its ability to invoke nostalgia within the viewer. Even someone like me, with limited exposure to Eraserheads songs, was able to recall times like jeepney rides, eating at restaurants, lying down listening to the radio, where I resonated with the band’s relatable music.

Most prominent of all in this evocation of nostalgia is the focus on regret, the desire to change the past. Like the titular song itself, which dealt with that longing for one last dance, the main characters are haunted by their powerlessness to stop the event that led to the estrangement of their relationship, wishing that they could have done something to change things.

But life moves on, and the only thing that one can do, like what our heroes learned, is to get over it and try to make up for those mistakes. It is in that desperate longing, that wistful yearning for the past, that the musical truly resonates and relates to its audience.

Photo by Ma’am Dacs Pinlac.

Spoliarium

However, the musical is not without its flaws. With the way the musical is structured, going back and forth between the past and the present, it adopts a fast-paced method of telling its story. While this allows for the inclusion of more songs and scenes, it leaves some plot points feeling unearned.

For example, the character of Andre, who is introduced as Joy’s boyfriend, is used for all of two scenes, one introducing him, and one casting him aside. Another example would be the glossing over of Hector, Anthony, and Emman’s love interests, serving little more than as a point of conflict in the characters’ lives, which they repair their relationship with without any difficulty at the end.

Some creative decisions can also be questionable. The present-day characters, while each playing their role well, look quite different from their younger counterparts. Even though this is understandable, the seemingly youthful appearance of Hector and elder look of Anthony makes it hard to believe they’re twenty years apart from their younger selves.

Though choosing to have no clear antagonist works in its favor, the musical seems to antagonize character of Banlaoi, the ROTC instructor and police chief, for no reason other than to imply a culprit in Joy’s death. As mentioned before, the quick nature of the musical can lead to many subtleties going over one’s head, such as Hector’s activism.

With A Smile

Overall, the musical was well received by the audience, who gave it a standing ovation during the curtain call. Points of praise included the musical’s decision to showcase a wide range of topics which all viewers could find something to relate to.

Another compliment for the musical was its ability to make the viewer feel suspenseful over the events of the play, capturing the audience in rapt attention, especially during the turning point at the end of the first act. “We were crying, and I didn’t know what to feel, because I was so happy, but at the same time I realized how [cruel] the world is,” posited Gracie Jimenez.

Additionally, commendation was given to the transformation and recontextualization of songs from the Eraserheads, especially from the teachers who attended, having lived when these songs were at their height.

As Ma’am Elena Pinlac puts it, the August 25 show being her second viewing: “For me, the best part of the musical was seeing how songs I grew up with were used in a whole new way — different arrangements, different contexts. […] After watching it that second time around, it was heartwarming for me to see that some of my co-teachers and students alike, two different generations, appreciated the play, too.”

In the end, despite its flaws, Ang Huling El Bimbo manages to draw the audience in with colorful scenes, a compelling plot, and vibrant music. And like the final lines of “Alapaap,” which the cast sang wholeheartedly at the curtain call, this musical is certainly an experience for one to partake in and behold.

Just as the musical’s titular leitmotif harkens back to that distant past, so too will the viewer be drawn back through a nostalgic flurry of sentimental jukebox tunes.

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