MANILA—Aicelle Santos admittedly had a difficult time transitioning back to being an optimistic girl with big dreams in the flooded Barangay Venezia, from a cynical bar girl in war-torn Vietnam — drastically different stage roles she took on back-to-back.
The acclaimed actress portrayed Gigi in the 2018 UK tour of “Miss Saigon” during which she temporarily said goodbye to Aileen, the lead role she originated in the well-loved musical “Rak of Aegis.”
For the PETA production’s seventh season, Santos is donning anew Aileen’s youthful yellow outfits — a stark contrast to Gigi’s provocative two-piece.
“Sa totoo lang, nahihirapan ako hanapin ulit si Aileen, ‘yung youthful na Aileen, ‘yung dreaming siya, iyong bago at fresh,” Santos told ABS-CBN News after the recent gala night of “Rak of Aegis.”
Santos also noted a recent real-life milestone since “Rak of Aegis” debuted in 2014 — she got engaged to TV host Mark Zambrano last year.
“Nasa ibang stage na ako ng buhay ko ngayon, mag-aasawa na. Ang hirap ulit hatakin pabalik sa bata,” she said.
As Aileen, Santos is a poverty-stricken aspiring singer, who pins her hopes of having a comfortable life for her family — away from their perennially flooded barangay — on making a viral video of her performing.
“Dasal, una sa lahat,” Santos of re-capturing Aileen’s wide-eyed and deteremined spirit. “Pangalawa, re-research. Kumausap ulit ng mga taong nangangarap, at balikan ‘yung dating Aileen, ‘yung dating Aicelle.”
“Kinabahan talaga ako sa totoo lang,” she went on. “Every time I would exit the stage, especially sa rehearsals — ‘Okay ba ‘yun, mukha na ba akong bata?’ Sobrang conscious ako. Hopefully nagawa ko naman nang maayos.”
And that she did during the seventh season’s gala night. Santos delivered a captivating performance of Aileen — a convincing mix of cheery and weary, with emotions managing to feel raw through her pitch-perfect vocals.
Despite having done the role dozens of times over the years, Santos didn’t dare “rely on muscle memory” to bring life anew to Aileen, especially after a break with other, more daring portrayals. (She was also Elsa in the musical staging of “Himala” prior to “Miss Saigon.”)
“Dati, sabi ko sa nga sarili ko, ‘Ah, si Aileen, madali nagawa ko na.’ Hindi pala totoo ‘yon. Hindi siya totoo. Kailangan mong mag-relearn. Iyon ang importante. Start anew.
“‘Ah, I did it this way.’ Hindi pipuwede ‘yon. Kaya constant searching pa rin itong bagong journey ni Aileen this seventh season. So hopefully iba-ibang Aileen ang ma-witness niyo ‘pag makita niyo ako sa stage,” she said.
The sentiment was shared by fellow, original cast members who are returning for the new season, including Isay Alvarez as barangay captain Mary Jane, Robert Seña as Aileen’s father Kiel, and Pepe Herrera as Aileen’s love interest Tolits.
This time, they will be joined by new additions to Barangay Venezia: Kimberly Baluzo as Aileen, Randy Santiago as Fernan, Noel Cabangon as Kiel, Bayang Barrios and Jenine Desiderio as Mary Jane, and Derrick Monasterio as Tolits.
“Rak of Aegis” runs until September 29 at PETA Theater Center in Quezon City.