Unless you’re living under a rock, you must have seen the seemingly exponential propagation of superhero content in various media platforms – from one superhero movie after another, the long list of hit superhero TV shows, to a strong resurgence of comic books in today’s generation. Because of this, there are discussions if perhaps we should tone down our seemingly unquenchable thirst for superhero adventure stories. In film, for example, some cineastes have expressed how this type of content has somehow restricted the landscape of discourse in movies. Others, on the other hand, claim that this is a strong representation of a community’s goals, hopes and aspirations — a birth or rebirth of a new genre, if you will. With this in mind, it is interesting to see how a superhero-themed show would fare on a theater stage. Will it be just as formulaic as some superhero films are or will it be revisionist enough in its narrative to show something more?
Luckily, Dalanghita Productions’ Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady is a creature of its own. It merges the glossy aesthetic of western superhero genre and the earthly grit of its Filipino counterpart. And between these contrasting elements is the story of the everyday Filipino, which keeps everything grounded and relatable despite the narrative’s metaphysical framework. Ultimately, it presents a fresh sense of artistic being, something that we have not seen before in any superhero themed content.
Penned by Carlo Vergara (originally as a one-act-play and later on expanded as a graphic novel), Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady follows the story of Mely as she works for the premier English-speaking superhero gang Fuerza Filipinas as househelp. This leads to a series of twists and turns that involve her kind-hearted yet overreaching sister Viva and the local superhero wannabes Kayumanggilas who seek to overthrow Fuerza Filipinas. The story’s flow is not without its flaws. Its storytelling tends to be jumpy and overreaching; the narrative tries to cover a wide array of subplots. Some characters are conveniently glossed over while some segments seem unnecessary or are just utterly redundant. This unfortunately makes it difficult for the audience to sustain the connection to the show’s characters. Some will say I am just nitpicking, and that is an understandable sentiment. After all, Chris Martinez’ direction took the big aspects of the original material and created a strong and compelling show, which easily stuns its audience to an immediate suspension of disbelief - from the moment the lights turn on to the final note is sung at the end.
Giving the musical’s soul is Vincent de Jesus’ music, which effectively creates an engaging blend of catchy and poignant music. I bet most, if not all, audience members were blown away with Kayumanggilas and were romantically tickled by Why Me. It must be quite challenging to compose and arrange Filipino and English songs and mix them cohesively into one musical. But fortunately, he does it so well that the songs helps bring out more depth to the characters and effective push to the narrative.
Moreover, the show’s technical design is close to perfection in the hands of industry mainstays Tuxqs Rutaquio and John Batalla. Rutaquio's futuristic stage design perfectly complements the tone of the story. It has its clever way of utilizing the limited space for the musical’s huge cast and it even allows the story to highlight certain scenes with comical emphasis. John Batalla, on the other hand, is expectedly amazing. His lighting design dresses the stage with the much needed color to showcase the show’s theme while his manipulation of shadows effectively punctuates the more somber scenes.
Something has to be said with the show’s casting. Granted that the story warrants a huge cast, but it is a notable achievement when you manage to bring together some theater actors who have been known in English-language productions and other performers who have been mainstays of locally developed shows all together on one stage. The performances of this intelligent mixture of artists even give credence to the contrasts of the show’s characters. I am sure many theater lovers are excited to see Menchu Lauchengco Yulo in a local stage production as she plays Madre de Dios, the leader of the English-speaking superhero gang Fuerza Filipinas (she alternates the role with Astarte Abraham). Bituin Escalante (who alternates with Frenchie Dy) shines as Mely with her comic timing and emotional dedication to the character. Hans Eckstein, whom I’ve only seen in a supporting role from the shows I’ve seen before, is a wonderful revelation as Leading Man (Eckstein alternates the role with Markki Stroem). Domi Espejo is a certified scene stealer in the show as the Senyor Blanco, the leader of Fuerza Filipinas’ rival Kayumanggilas (alternating the role with Nar Cabico). Of course, I would be remiss if I fail to mention Giannina Ocampo as Nena Babushka as she owns the stage with her heart-wrenching, tears-inducing performance of Pretend I’m Her (yes, we do have a new addition to our friendzone-themed mix tape, alongside On My Own). Her performance is this song is so intimate, watching her feels a bit too intrusive.
In the end, Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady feels like a celebration. The show ultimately presents its audience with a relatively more immersive experience of the superhero narrative that a movie, TV show, or comic book just cannot provide. Its story, cast, lights, stage design, effects, and songs bring the audience an intimate sense of belonging in a world that is completely different from ours. But behind all this is a cleverly realistic deconstruction of the hero myth. Heroes tend to be distant; they are affirmed by the veneration of others. And we all end up waiting for someone to work as a hero. In the process forgetting that sometimes it takes a lot of introspection and placement of self to make ourselves heroes for one self and others. This sentiment may be a bit too saccharine for some, but in a society who’s overwhelmed by a long list of collective struggles, perhaps it is a necessary reminder to look at oneself to find the hero, in one way or another.
Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady runs until June 7 at the PETA Theater Center. Call Ticketworld at (632) 891-9999 for tickets.
Photos by Jaypee Maristaza