Rarely is religion a point of contention among Filipinos. It has ingrained itself in the deeper mantle of culture, cementing its place as the lifeblood of a faithful country. Himala: Isang Musikal is one of the rare theatrical triumphs which bravely deconstructs the pillars of such belief through a reexamination of faith and of fixation and perversion of religious traditions.
Himala: Isang Musikal tells the story of Elsa, a young woman living in the desolate town of Cupang, who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary’s apparition during a solar eclipse. What follows is a test of faith, a question of morals and a crippling examination of character as the town of Cupang finds itself a Messiah in Elsa, only to learn that some things aren’t always as they seem.
The 2019 run of Himala from The Sandbox Collective and 9 Works Theatrical is a restaging of the original musical which debuted in 2003. Ricky Lee, writer of the 1981 film that the play is based on, has once again picked up his quill to revive this classic story for a new generation of audiences — this time with Vincent A. De Jesus’ captivating music.
De Jesus proved that he is a master of his craft from the first haunting seconds of the prologue. His soulful music stands out enough to be a character on its own. It is poignant and moving in giving an honest voice to the characters. The lone piano and mic-less actors flesh out the beautiful rawness of his composition but it never gets boring. In fact, the variety of themes in the composition makes for complex storytelling that excites and ascends to a point of musical climax.
Although the piece has proven time and again that it’s a story that transcends its medium, the recent production is enriched by the immersive black box theater at the Power Mac Spotlight. Director Ed Lacson Jr. took advantage of the four-sided stage that movement flowed with rhythm even with a cast of 40.
Lights designer, Barbie Tan-Tiongco’s lighting is a prime example of understated poetry, most seen in Elsa’s introduction as she witnessed the apparition of the Virgin Mary. Here, Tan-Tiongco managed to bathe Elsa in crisp, warm light and produce her ethereal silhouette with a lone spotlight.
The production boasts of some of the finest theater actors in the country. Bituin Escalante plays Saling (shared between Sheila Francisco and May Bayot-De Castro), Elsa’s devoted adoptive mother who urges Elsa to drop her claims of seeing the Virgin.
It’s no secret that Escalante is a vocal powerhouse. But here, she shows that she can power through subdued performances just as well. Her notes pierce with emotion as much as her lost gazes into the void. It’s no wonder there was barely a dry eye left after her “Uyayi ng Ina”.
Neomi Gonzales and Kakki Teodoro make for solid support as Elsa’s childhood friends Chayong and Nimia, respectively.
Gonzales has a pristine and delicate voice so fitting for chastely Chayong. Her beautiful rendition of “Sa Ihip ng Hangin” makes her uncharacteristic demise even more painful and soul-shattering.
Meanwhile, Teodoro’s Nimia is the antithesis to Chayong and Elsa. Nimia, a prostitute and owner of the town’s infamous brothel, is unapologetic and vulgar.
Teodoro embodies her with powerful conviction. The way she sings lines like, “Ang tunay na himala ay nasa gitna ng aking hita”, proves that both her and Nimia is a force to be reckoned with.
Leading the pack is Aicelle Santos as Elsa (alternating with Celine Fabie), a legendary role that could have devoured a less-abled actress, but one which Santos crafts perfectly for herself. Her Elsa is mysterious yet flawed and human, encouraging both sympathy and despise from the audience.
The scene where Elsa finally breaks down and demands the Virgin to show herself is a testament to what an effective actress Santos is. She releases all the doubts, anger and guilt bubbling up inside her; what ensues is an exhilarating display of emotions.
The “Walang himala” scene from the film is referenced and parodied countless times in popular culture. But unlike versions before, the musical takes a second just after a gunshot is fired at Elsa as she delivers her iconic speech, thus expanding it into a cathartic end for our protagonist. Before the bullet pierced through her heart, Elsa takes one last look at the diseased people of Cupang. She looks at what she’s done to them, and after a moment, at what she’s done to herself.
She then lets go of life.
The true soul of the musical is its ensemble cast. The large cast in a relatively small space creates the ultimate feast for the senses. With every note sung in precision and harmonies blended flawlessly, seeing and hearing the cast together proves to be a spiritual experience and a testament to the power of theater.
One display of such power is in the finale of Act 1 when all of Cupang comes together to beg Elsa for healing. Hope and despair make for a hair-raising experience as the cast launches into a thundering chorus of pleas and prayers.
The show wraps up with its most poignant moment as it throws the spotlight back to the audience: “Anong kailangan niyong marinig at makita bago kayo maniwala?”, sung in a hauntingly beautiful chorus. (Special mention is in order for Jennifer Villegas Dela-Cruz for her stunning obligato.) It was the perfect way to wrap up a show without putting an end to the story.
Like all great shows, Himala is best viewed through different lenses. It doesn’t serve as a mouthpiece for propaganda, nor does it resort to preaching its morals. Rather, it simply tells a reverberant narrative of the Filipino people looking for a Messiah in the face of despair. The show doesn’t condone or discriminate against this, but it reminds the audience of their mortal vulnerability and natural tendency to create their own gods for selfish needs.
This is not a far cry from reality even today – in a time when the nation has to bear one quandary after another, the hunt for a Messiah comes in the form of national elections. It also serves as a cautionary tale to the dangers of blind faith in the age of disinformation.
The marvelous faith placed by the townspeople on Elsa makes for a tough pill to swallow: there is always a price to pay in following certain principles and believing in certain people, and pay for it we must.
Himala finished its limited run last October 20, 2019. We may have to pray for another miracle for a rerun. Until then, we shall remain grateful for the gift that is Himala.
Photo by Kyle Venturillo