My review of "3 Stars and a Sun" in today's paper--here. Saw it twice already, for the alternates. Contemplating a third visit. I liked it way better the second time around; it grows on you, it really does.
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'3 Stars and a Sun': predictable--but also ambitious and compelling
Futuristic dystopia by itself is a closed, predictable circuit. What books and films seem to tell us is that it is a land of few surprises.
It's all a matter of setting: the numberless train carriages of Bong Joon-ho's "Snowpiercer," adapted from the French graphic novel "Le Transperceneige"; the childless Britain of Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men," based on the P.D. James novel; the glamorous, celebrity-fueled neo-America of "The Hunger Games." They're all bound by recurring narrative elements--widespread discontent, glaring class divide, an uprising and the fall of the powerful, to name a few.
"3 Stars and a Sun," a brand-new musical that opens the year for Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta), is no different.
Jointly written by Mixkaela Villalon and Rody Vera, it imagines the Philippines in 2096 as literally a world of light and dark, the little that survived the near-apocalypse of 70 years ago now divided into spanking-white Lumino City and scrap-metal wasteland Diliman, both existing in disharmony under a protective, supposedly indestructible steel encapsulation known as the Stormdome.
The rich and mighty, represented by Vidame Inky and her family, live comfortably in Lumino; the poor, exemplified by the renegade Tropang Gising, struggle in Diliman.
You don't have to be a science fiction fan to know what happens next; it's a story--and an ending--that's visible from miles away. In fact, one gets the gnawing feeling that, on the page or onscreen, the story would have no doubt benefited from a more elaborate exploration of the alternate realities it presents.
Still, there's no denying that the musical's book brims with wit and distinctly Pinoy humor, with pop-culture references cleverly thrown in the mix. Vidame Inky alone has two lines that unabashedly borrow from Adele and the Spice Girls.
Which brings us to the question of the hour: How does "3 Stars and a Sun" fare as a jukebox musical using the songbook of the late rap and rock artist Francis Magalona?
Groundbreaking it isn't. Tanghalang Pilipino preceded it by two years with its original rap musical "Kleptomaniacs." And that's not even dragging Broadway's Lin-Manuel Miranda ("In the Heights," "Hamilton") into the conversation.
Ambitious? Yes. It's no walk in the park to merge rap, dystopian sci-fi and Filipino nationalism and social commentary into a singular coherent show. And, for that, the writers should certainly be lauded.
This reach-for-the-heavens attitude pervading "3 Stars" is even more visible in Gino Gonzales' set design--a somber matrix of metal bars and scaffolding that, while heavily resembling his work for Peta's Filipino adaptation of "King Lear," directed by Nonon Padilla, is nevertheless a stylish evocation of the Stormdome's all-imposing nature. (Gonzales is also "3 Stars'" costume designer.)
But what's truly first-rate about it is in a name: Myke Salomon.
Granted, two pieces of work are barely an adequate gauge of skill, but to judge Salomon by what he did with the songs of Aegis in Peta's runaway megahit "Rak of Aegis," and now with the Francis M songbook in "3 Stars," it's safe to say that the man is the most essential musical director around today.
In Salomon's hands, "Mga Kababayan Ko," which serves as the opening number, now acquires a sheen of power-hungry deceit as sung by Vidame Inky. The kundiman-like "Bahala Na" is now a tango, the crafty accompaniment to the demo sequence of the musical's concept of "reconditioning," which is how Lumino unwittingly wipes the citizens of Diliman clean of their memories.
"Kaleidoscope World" has become a haunting lullaby, while "Cold Summer Nights" is reimagined as an anguished cry of heartbreak rendered through a fresh Filipino translation.
Thanks to Salomon and his reinvention of the music of Francis M, "3 Stars" actually makes sense as a musical. It's an even greater feat when one considers how the songs are almost thematically similar (Magalona, after all, used his music as a platform for social activism), and yet, once settled within the mold of the show, they start to sound and mean different.
Too often, "3 Stars" teeters on the brink of narrative repetitiveness--you hear yourself thinking, didn't we just see this sequence?--but is salvaged by the performances at hand.
It is through Nicco Manalo, as Tropang Gising leader Sol, that Magalona's words and Salomon's musical alterations find their most consummate vessel. Rap requires rhythm and enunciation, the beat following a lyrical bent, the consonants clear and hard. Manalo's singing has all that, but watch, too, how this diminutive figure commands the stage, his presence as effortless and forceful as his rapping.
Thank heavens, too, this production has Bodjie Pascua, who plays the hermit Mang Okik (the stock old-man-of-wisdom character). Look at him gaze into the night sky, and in his eyes you see eons, those lost and wasted years. Then, he slays a rollicking, show-stopping History-of-the-Philippines rap number. Clearly, Pascua is having madcap fun, and it's infectious.
There's also Carla Guevara-Laforteza as Vidame Inky--not a regular mom, but a cool mom, and also a devilish snake in angel's clothing (seriously, even her hair's dyed white). Giannina Ocampo as Inky's daughter Diane is the most convincing "conyo" of Lumino, while Gio Gahol as son Chino marvelously evinces his character's transformation from uncaring, spoiled brat to cruel leader. And Nar Cabico, as the rebel Poy, showcases some of the production's most solid singing.
The alternates for the roles include: Che Ramos-Cosio (Vidame Inky), Raffy Tejada (Mang Okik), Gold Villar (Sol), Justine Peña (Diane), Paolo Valenciano (Chino) and John Moran (Poy).
But now to get around to answering that "other" question: No, "3 Stars" is not the new "Rak of Aegis," not in terms of artistry or consistency of performance. Nor Domingo's direction is seemingly hit-and-miss, and the lackluster ending is more confusing than clarifying.
What "3 Stars" is, however, is a new piece of theater propelled by ambition, blazing with admirable confidence and purposefulness. And though its telling is imperfect, it is still, in the end, compelling--and thus worth a second, even third, look.
Runs until Feb 6 at the Peta Theater Center, with shows Tuesdays to Sundays.