a sigh of belief: "sa wakas" a new pinoy rock musical

as it turns out, i may not after all have been such a huge fan of sugarfree as i originally thought, since i wasn't aware that the group had actually already disbanded. and not recently. i could possibly ascribe my ignorance to the fact that i neither have television nor read the entertainment section of the online newspapers that i follow. this much i learned as i tried to find my seat inside the PETA theater in quezon city. when i finally found it on an elevated row at the back of the theater, i regretted getting the most expensive ticket when i could have been seated closer to the stage at 200 pesos less. i had barely warmed my seat when a group of friends arrived and remarked that quezon city is not far naman pala, because everywhere's near kaya on a sunday. i had just heard an announcement which allowed non-flash photography, so i was fiddling with my camera to turn off the sound and its autofocus assist light. it did not occur to me that although i was watching an all new filipino rock musical, half of the dialogue would sound just like the conversations of the group of friends beside me -- mostly in english.

"sa wakas" is all about love. but two sides of it. on the one hand you have the love story of a young, possibly odd couple given their different and disparate interests. on the other you have a love affair -- a relationship which feels right but shouldn't. the persons involved in the story and the affair weave this narrative without overly moralizing their sometimes awkward situation with the help of sugarfree's songs -- 20 of them. and the tale is told backwards. it begins with what appears to be a post-break-up reconciliation, where both individuals seem to have moved on, and ends with a new start, when the couple whom we know don't end up together move into a new place and a proposal to marry is made. it's a clever approach to story telling and allows the audience to ask questions, to try to figure out why it ended even as the play moves along. it is also interesting how an audience member might interpret the title, since it may mean "in the end" or could be a sigh, "finally!" there is also an undercurrent theme: it is about not giving up one's love for something you're passionate about, be it photography, neurosurgery, or writing about art.

i was curious about the creative process involved in the development of the story. the songs of sugarfree were of course a conscious choice: ebe dancel is a poet masquerading as a rock star. but i wondered, for example, if the concept had already been created and they selected certain songs to push the story along, or if the narrative was written around the songs. i feel that it was the latter since i did notice at times that certain scenes were arranged, and even lines of dialogue were dropped to segue into a specific sugarfree song. while the book writers exerted an effort not to make the transitions to the songs come across as forced, the choice of situations showed that they needed to establish why a character suddenly sings. with 20 songs from sugarfree (ebe wrote one new song just for the musical), laying the foundation for a certain song was crucial. in the opening scene we find lexi and topper exchanging boxes, lamenting departures, bidding farewell to old, familiar things (obviously, the song here is "kwarto"). close to the end, it was necessary for lexi, exhausted from work, to fall asleep on topper's lap so that he could suddenly whisper the pop lullaby "tulog na".

the love triangle by itself is not so compelling a plot, and the story would have been very uninteresting were it not for the benjamin buttonesque execution. but what one might appreciate is that the characters are not archetypes of morality -- gabbi is not depicted as a slut for sleeping with a man she knew to be engaged. topper was at fault as well, but we don't see him as an awful person, nor is lexi suddenly turned into the martyr fiancee. as in life, there are no true protagonists and antagonists. we only perceive others to be that because we need to explain where we are and why we are there. but in reality, our decisions -- whether to enter into a relationship or to end one -- aren't always the result of analysis and careful study. they're the outcome of our feelings. we fall in love, we fall out of love. we cheat, we hurt the people that we love, we find ourselves in situations which we struggle to explain. the script lends no major contribution to telling the story. that the characters converse mostly in english is believable since many filipinos talk like that, but negates the accessibility that sugarfree's songs lends it. i felt i was in a workshop where i reacted to some lines of dialogue that felt out of place, trite, even contrived.

for example, in order to establish that topper has an older brother so that he could later amazingly sing "dear kuya", we hear several voice messages. but seriously, with SMS, who leaves voice messages? i personally know of no one who has activated this feature on their phones. i would have utilized the video screens to turn the voicemail into a more believable text message. nevertheless, there are some brilliant theatrical devices put to good use, such as the red zippo lighter and the boxes which are present at the beginning which is really the end are the same boxes that we find in the ending, where it all begins (the story is told backwards, just to be clear). the spoken scenes are dramatically short -- none of the characters are on the stage for more than 5 minutes before they break into song. and perhaps rightly so.

the use of existing OPM songs from one artist or group is not unprecedented as one might think -- that's already been done in "i do bidoo bidoo". the achievement of "sa wakas" was really in its musical arrangement. sugarfree is an alternative pop band with roots in rock, so songs that might otherwise have been appropriate for the open grounds of the UP fair or the small spaces of videoke joints sounded made for the legitimate stage. songs that might otherwise make you jump and bang your head made you sit and listen and understand. there was flourish and grace in the way the music emphasized anger or highlighted confusion. when we listen to a band play their songs, no one really pays attention to what the lyrics mean. in a musical, the songs are really dialogue and thoughts set to music, so i began noticing beautiful stanzas in ebe's words. when i left the theater, i wondered whether a new pinoy musical could be written borrowing songs from several artists, or whether one group has a deep enough discography to be the basis of more groundbreaking theatrical material.

on the sunday that i watched, topper was played by victor robinson III. when vic appeared on the stage, he had this startled look on his face, his eyes piercing and probing. his expressive gaze notwithstanding, he did not come across as an actor capable of a wide range of emotions. his arms stayed mostly where they fell from his shoulders. the stage normally requires big movements since there are no close-ups, so i did feel as though he was pulling back, if not a little shy. but what vic is unable to portray through his spartan stage presence, he more than makes up for with the depth of his singing and the range of his voice, which engulfed the stage. i would pay just to hear him sing. he was soft and tender in the ballads such as "tulog na" and "wag ka nang umiyak" but also strong and edgy in "dramachine" and "dear kuya". topper is on the stage almost for the entire run of the musical and sings 18 of the 21 songs: he only gets a barely noticeable costume change during the brief intermission.

portraying lexi was laura cabochan, who distracted me a lot because she looks so much like someone i know. she was a stark counterpoint to vic's topper because she tended to maximize the stage and fill it up with her exaggerated movement that she sometimes appeared restless, although at times i did notice that her acting appeared too studied, calculated. when she slapped topper after finding out about his infidelity, it came across as measured -- it would have been easy to dodge, quite honestly. her singing voice is great for theater, but sounds less apt for anything requiring some rock rhythms; and here again we find the genius of the musical direction, since i was convinced the songs could not have been sung any other way.

in the souvenir program, it says that justine peña is a newcomer to the world of professional theater. but her nuanced portrayal belies that. she feels so natural it doesn't feel she's acting. i could imagine she might actually talk and walk like that even off the stage. her gabbi has no interaction with lexi, as it should in strange scenarios where you know you're "the other woman" (she laments this, telling topper: ano tayo, nakikiuso, kabit movie?). although not as powerful a singer as vic and laura (and hans dimayuga of the ensemble), she does have some raw and unquieting quality to her voice which gives her every right to be on that stage. she's also easy on the eyes. alright i'll say it: she's disarmingly beautiful, i hope to see more of her in the future!

one might think i just panned "sa wakas". but quite honestly i enjoyed it much more than i am willing to reveal in this review. what excites me is that no one involved in this production seemed to be more than 35 (with the exception of ebe, i guess). this is both very promising for the direction of filipino theater, but depressing because it makes me feel ancient and that i haven't achieved anything at all. i'm also thrilled at the potential for creating more original work for musical theater. ebe wrote one new song for this, and it turns out to be the most poignant song of all. imagine if he wrote new material for a new musical that he helps conceive. i'd block an entire performance and sell tickets. if i had the money, i'd even produce it! i'm just glad there are young people willing to risk scrutiny and criticism in order to pursue their dreams, and to remind the filipino audience, which sometimes forgets, that we are in abundant supply of extremely talented people. a huge congratulations to the cast and crew and i hope to see it again during this first run.

* the poster, beautiful cast photos and music video are from