Theater: Manhid

"Manhid"

What price is our freedom? MANHID is set in an alternate present day Philippines where the EDSA revolution failed; this musical features heroes and villains with superpowers, and a people sick with Kamanhiran (Apathy).

I want to heap accolades for Manhid. Mostly because it’s rock opera musical accompanied by ballet. Also because it creates superheroes out of characters from Filipino epics. And because of its history of being conceived by Aureaus Solito, with music from Eraserheads. The whole thing screams epic. And it is epic.

Unfortunately, so was its running time.

This is my biggest bone to pick with Ballet Philippines’ production of Manhid. It was trying to match the length of an epic, complete with side stories and interludes–turning it into a hodgepodge musical confused on whether it wants to speak out against injustice, or if it’s a juxtaposition of two love stories set against the backdrop of a revolution. In a time where short-form social media is king, you would’ve thought the creative forces of Manhid would’ve taken one look at the script and realized that at more than two-hours long, the musical was just too long. And too long not because characters are being developed, and are being loved. It was too long because each now plot twist needed explanation. Each new plot twist needed a backing musical number that tells instead of shows what the story wants to say.

Manhid is a gem–but one that needs to be polished. Just because this is how it was written more than two decades ago doesn’t mean you have to hold the true to the book. Stories like that of Manhid is supposed to reflect the times. And while most of the musical is still relevant today, important devices are visibly outdated now. Like, for example, lead character Bantugan’s job as a writer for a local tabloid. Decked out in a white sleeveless zip-up with headphones and a wrist-mounted computer, Bantugan’s entire personality screams techno-savvy individual. So why is he working as a reporter for a tabloid? No, I’m not looking down on tabloids, but they’ve been passe for some years now. Broadsheets are the new tabloids, and their online presence is way more visible now than ever before. Broadsheets online are the new mass-friendly tabloids with their clickbait headlines. If Ballet Philippines could update Bantugan’s look, why couldn’t they have updated his devices too? You’re not changing the musical, just the way the audience can relate to the characters.

Which, to be quite honest, was a hard thing to do. One, because there were too many characters. Two, because we get thrust into the story of Manhid with barely a brief of what world we’re about to enter. We get a spoken word introduction, and suddenly our lead characters are singing and dancing on stage and we have no idea what’s going on. It wasn’t until halfway through the second song before I realized that factions were being formed, that good guys were being hunted down by bad guys. And I only realized this because lead character Lam-Ang tells supporting character Dilim that the government attacked the club she was working at because they wanted to get to her.

Had the world been established better in the opening number, we wouldn’t have needed the clunky dialogue between Lam-Ang and Dilim. We would’ve just squirmed in our seats as we awaited their fate. As the villains closed in to the heroes. Instead, we scratched our heads at the action unfolding in front of us. The ministry of humanity was enjoying a show when a woman suddenly shows up to disrupt the peace. A fight ensues. And then the woman takes the lead singer of the show. If the dialogue didn’t say that Lam-Ang was saving Dilim, you can spin this off as an insurgent attack on the safety of the government.

And that could’ve been played with. But, obviously, the creative forces wanted people to relate to the insurgents. They want us to feel. Not to be numb. Hence the show’s main title and theme. But how can you care about heroes you know nothing about? Superman started with a destroyed planet. Spider-man had a dead Uncle Ben. Zsazsa Zaturnnah had a love interest whose safety was being threatened by colorful dominatrix aliens. We care about their fight because we know what they’re fighting for. In Manhid, we learn about our lead character’s fight as the first act wraps up. And that is the only time we see actual motivation from our heroes. When, during a musical number on how there came to be super-powered human beings, they fall in love with each other.

I don’t know how important the love story is to the main story arc. I know it’s important for one of the characters, for Allunsina, who you can say is the audience surrogate. But in the grand scheme of things, the love story of Bantugan and Lam-Ang felt shoe-horned. It felt like the creative forces just wanted to give heft to something that just wasn’t working out.

But, to be fair, as the first act wraps up, so does my complaints. Acts two and three had better pacing, and it also had a better grip on showing instead of telling. It also has a better love story between hero Urduja and the villain Radya Indarapata. It was still incredibly long, but time starts to fly faster because the story is now succeeding in absorbing the audience. I mean, there were still times when a break on stage becomes jarring, but overall, the last two thirds of the musical was more phenomenal than its beginning.

Ballet Philippines found a stellar cast to bring to life the characters of Manhid. I’m not completely sold on Lam-Ang, but I have to blame the material more than the actress. Bantugan’s vocals kept getting overpowered by the band, but he was serviceable. Apolaki’s forced conyo accent was funny, and I hope that that was intentional. And Dilim’s voice? Wow. The actors that shone the brightest though was Urduja’s, with vulnerability lacing her every word, even as she shows how strong her powers are; Radya Indarapata’s gray moral compass was conveyed majestically, and was most heartbreaking in his final moments; and Mamalahim-ma. There’s nothing I can say about Mamalahim-ma that will do justice to the power she brings on stage–which is an irony since she’s the only lead actor without an actual power.

And then there’s Allunsina. Played by Gold Villar with a fun abandon, Allunsina captures attention immediately even during the less-than-wonderful first act. I don’t know if some of her lines were just ad-lib, but everything out of her mouth feels natural, feels true to her character, and even at her most scathing, she was the most relatable and lovable in the cast of characters. Probably because her character felt the most true.

Allunsina is the star of Manhid.

Now, I could continue to go on and go on about Manhid, but the bottom line is this: it’s a great musical. It is. It just didn’t live up to the hype, and to my expectations.

But I have to commend Ballet Philippines (and Tanghalang Pilipino) for taking a risk in bringing back this rock opera musical. I hope next time they do, they don’t just update the costume, I wish they’d update the material too.

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