Theater review: Immersive ‘Himala’ will overwhelm you

Miguel Dumaual, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Sep 27 2019 10:42 PM

Aicelle Santos portrays Elsa in ‘Himala: Isang Musikal’. Erickson dela Cruz

MANILA — “Himala,” the musical adaptation of the iconic 1982 film starring Nora Aunor, isn’t just a show — it’s an experience.

Setting foot inside this latest iteration’s venue at Circuit Makati feels like being transported to the rainless, “cursed” town of Cupang, with howling winds on loop well before the lights dim, and bamboo and parched shrubs lining corners and the entrance.

Audience members aren’t just that. With seats under wooden canopies, laid out surrounding a bare stage, it’s as if you belong to the community rather than a spectator of it.

Prepare to get uncomfortable when intimate moments unfold; you’re an eavesdropper to a quarrel between lovers, or a witness, even an accomplice, to a crime.

The emotive portrayals and soaring notes certainly deserve applause, but that hardly comes around. You will hesitate, for doing so feels almost intrusive to a character contemplating her life, or two friends reconciling, or a grieving man’s simmering rage.

Kakki Teodoro portrays Nimia in ‘Himala: Isang Musikal’. Erickson dela Cruz

Then the line is blurred further when the ensemble fills the performance space, at certain points spilling over to the audience area.

Director Ed Lacson tasked the ensemble to each name their character and stick to it from the start to finish, lending a sense of familiarity and affinity whenever they’re on stage (or standing beside your seat).

A boisterous scene at the “kabaret,” for instance, comes off as seeing neighbors merrymaking. It’s also easy to imagine being a customer there, if you so wish, with the audience mere feet away from the tables where beer, and women, are served.

With the exception of actually stepping on stage, experiencing The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical’s production of “Himala: Isang Musikal” is nothing short of immersive — to the point of getting overwhelming, given its story.

As in the film, the musical by Ricky Lee and Vincent de Jesus follows the transformation of the arid town of Cupang, after Elsa (Aicelle Santos, alternating with Celine Fabie) claims to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary, giving her miraculous powers of healing.

David Ezra portrays Orly in ‘Himala: Isang Musikal’. Erickson dela Cruz

Precisely because of the restraint and intimacy of many of its scenes, the decidedly bigger moments — combined with the immersive setup —can be emotionally engulfing.

That payoff is especially felt when Elsa gathers the townspeople, in a climactic scene that positions the cast in such a way that the audience, too, are attendees and witnesses of the healer’s revelation.

“Walang himala!” she says. “Ang himala ay nasa puso ng tao.”

The gunshot that follows, and the resulting pandemonium, are a stirring sequence that deeply affects and makes you think well after you’ve vacated your spot in Cupang.

Lee and de Jesus, who were present during this show, agreed that the immersive aspect gave a stronger punch to the emotions already inherent in the material.

“It’s jarring, it’s confusing. I guess that’s the point,” de Jesus told ABS-CBN News. “Sa gulo ng Pilipinas, saan ka mag-po-focus? Dito ba chismis, sa information na ‘to, sa fake news, ‘yung mass hysteria? Do you focus on the noises, the quietness?”

The townspeople of Cupang congregate at Elsa’s ‘shrine.’ Erickson dela Cruz

“It’s about love, it’s about faith, faithlessness, betrayal, friendship. It’s so Filipino. It is what it is, take it as it is. What you take home is yours. What you feel is yours to keep, or to share, to bring home,” de Jesus said.

Lee also credited the fleshed-out portrayals of the townspeople for more clearly communicating the themes presented in the film nearly four decades ago.

“Iyong taumbayan, dito, binigyan ng kani-kaniyang buhay. Ginawan sila ng kani-kaniyang history. Sa film, walang individuality ‘yung karamihan. Dito, bawat isa, meron,” he said.

“Iyong emotional journeys ng characters, dinadala nating lahat, e: wanting to believe in something, wanting to hold on to something, losing something, being broken. Lahat ng emotions na ‘yun, alam natin sa buhay natin. I think that’s why madali tayong matuhog ng napapanood natin,” Lee said.

“Himala: Isang Musikal” will run at the Power Mac Center Spotlight at Circuit Makati until October 20.

Its cast members also include Kakki Teodoro as Nimia, Neomi Gonzales as Chayong, Vic Robinson and Sandino Martin as Pilo, David Ezra as Orly, Floyd Tena as Pari, and Sheila Francisco and May Bayot-de Castro as Saling.