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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

entry arrow11:01 AM | Zapped Into Eternal Ecstacy By the Pagoda Cold-Wave Motion Gun

For a play that first reared its fabulous red head way back in 2006, its longevity on stage is quite telling -- and that is how one must call it now, a play of considerable "longevity," given the vaporous thing that is a typical Philippine theatrical run. Armed with a Pagoda Cold-Wave Motion Gun ready to zap anyone who will carp and disagree, we might as well acknowledge that Carlo Vergara's ZsaZsa Zaturnnah ze Muzikal -- adapted from the comic book by Chris Martinez with direction by Chris Millado -- has (are you ready for this?) sashayed its way to a spot in the hallowed selection of local theater classics, the way Nick Joaquin's Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino or Alberto S. Florentino's The World is an Apple or Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero's Wanted: A Chaperone or Orlando Nadres's Hanggang Dito na Lamang at Maraming Salamat are constantly returned to, again and again. And rightfully so. A commercial and critical hit when it first came out as a Tanghalang Pilipino production, the merry (and gay) adventures of ZsaZsa (of the fabulous red hair) has not overstayed its welcome since zapping into our consciousness three years ago -- and the clamor for it has remained, if one must judge by the full houses it has maintained, as well as the constant call for yet another run.

Given my Dumaguete bearings, I must confess I've only seen the show in its latest incarnation. But many weeks after I first saw it during its Valentine run in the CCP Little Theater, ZsaZsa Zaturnnah ze Muzikal -- already a pop culture phenomenon now in its sixth staging* -- stubbornly remains like a sweet, wonderful infection in my head.

An infection
, I tell you: it has spread in my system like a mad, beloved musical virus whose sole symptom consists of my ability to suddenly belt out extremely singable show tunes. From the energetic chorus of "Heto na sa wakas, heto na! / Ang pagkakataong hinihintay natin sa wakas ay dumating!" to the triumphant "Ikaw ang superhero ng buhay kong ito / Ikaw ang Krystala at Darna ko / Ang Sugo at Mulawin ko, Lastikman at Gagamboy / Si Volta at Kapten Barbel ko / Ang Super G ng buhay ko... / Ikaw ang superhero ng buhay ko!", the songs stay with you.

Who would have thought there would be days where Joey Paras's unequaled rendition of the comic/dramatic swan song "Nakikita Ko Na ang Nakakasilaw na Ilaw" would become a kind of morning song for me, something I'd unconsciously press play in my CD player while I go about preparing for my day? The song's pathos is heartfelt -- but at the same time, its wicked comic edge allows us to step back a little bit and wink at the whole melodrama of it all.

Any theater critic worth his salt will probably tell you that this is the ultimate litmus test for how a musical can withstand the wear-and-tear of time and audience interest: a musical that hums, and continues to hum even after the last curtain call has been done, has the best chances of becoming a veritable theater "classic." Carlo Vergara's tale of an angst-ridden gay parlorista -- who finds himself, after swallowing a big stone, transformed into a titan of a superheroine, battling with zombies, giant frogs, and Amazon women schooled in the evil martial arts of local showbiz glitter -- is already a classic by that standard, if we are to judge by the sheer devotion it has almost inexplicably commanded from people who have seen it, and then loved it thoroughly. (If there must be Rentheads to describe the devotees of Jonathan Larson's Rent, there should now be a local equivalent: Zaturnettes, perhaps? Right, Hends? Right, Gibbs? Right, Migs? Hehehe.)

It helps, of course, that the source material -- Vergara's inspired gay reworking of the Darna komiks -- is genuinely funny to begin with, and much more so because it borders on delicious innuendos. It is also something completely "relatable" for most Filipinos whose growing-up pop culture staples have included such guilty pleasures as the fantasy literature unleashed by Mars Ravelo and his komiks ilk. That the book is unabashedly gay and uses -- with complete aptness and comic timing -- the wit and zing of gay street lingo gives Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni ZsaZsa Zaturnnah an edginess and a sense of irony we have only limned from our favorite komiks tales such as Dyesebel, Dyosa, and of course Darna. Vergara has fleshed out what we have always somehow suspected about our superheroes, and yet he also does it with a kind of reverence for the whole komiks tradition: he pushes the envelope, yes, but he never burns it. I've been teaching the graphic novel in my Philippine literature class in Silliman University for some years now, and it has never failed to entertain my students, even when it finally becomes a vehicle for a very academic discussion on the role of komiks in our culture.

When I first heard that it was being adapted into a musical, I thought the effort would probably be disastrous. How would they do the frog attack? The zombies? The intricate transmorphication of the Amazonistas? Even more so, I wondered: how would ordinary Filipino theatergoers react to what is essentially a gay fantasia, where lonely gay man actually gets the handsome guy in the end? And would the music be any good at all?

I did not quite remember that theater is actually capable of making magic that even film, with all kinds of special effects at its disposal, cannot provide: the stage is a womb for imagination, and a creative use of trapdoors and revolving stages, scrims and curtains, shadows and light -- and even hammy puppet-like prosthetics meant to approximate legs in battle -- is enough to make the story believable, and enjoyable, without taxing our innate incredulity too much.

It also helps that the members of the cast embody their characters almost like second skin. Someone actually said that some of the actors -- many of them reprising roles they originated in 2006 -- were merely going through the motions, that there was a palpable lack of energy and surprise that was probably brought on by being overly familiar with what they had to do. That is a valid observation, and perhaps it is also true -- but as a first-time attendee, I enjoyed the interplay between camp and seriousness the actors tried to convey: Eula Valdez -- beautiful and buff and oozing with a sex appeal that bothered the gay man in me -- is a wonder to behold as ZsaZsa, displaying a voice, comic timing, and an inner knowledge of bayotness that would have proven fatal if the role was given to one with lesser talents; Tuxqs Rutaquio has the tricky role of making the angsty Ada relatable and lovable, and he does so with aplomb.

Kalila Aguilos as Queen Femina is relatively less successful -- she grimaces too much and tries too hard -- but she gives the role the correct measure of madness it demands, and for that, we enjoy her, too. Joey Paras as Didi has a role that seems designed to be a scene-stealer from the get-go, unfortunately for the main players -- but it still wouldn't have worked if Joey didn't invest so much humanity into his manic comedy. And a scene-stealer he indeed was. (For those who have yet to see the show, wait for Didi's announcement of the play's intermission -- it will have you in stitches.)

I was hoping that in the night I would finally see ZsaZsa, the Dodong that I would get would be Arnold Reyes. I got newcomer Red Anderson instead. A theater friend believes that Red's take on the Dodong role -- essentially the story's damsel-in-distress part -- is an altogether different attack from all the other Dodongs in the show's past. I don't know what he meant by that, having not seen Arnold's, Janvier Daily's, or Lauren Novero's take. From his films, however, Arnold displays an exquisite subtlety as an actor, and that is how I expected Dodong to be handled -- and in the end, at least for me, Red's presence on stage last February 13 was very much on the high-end of okay. It could have been more, of course: I wanted him to break my heart when he began to launch into the show's signature song, "Ikaw ang Superhero ng Buhay Ko." He didn't. But that's perfectly okay.

In the end, however, the heart of the show -- aside from Carlo's original story -- is the music by Vince de Jesus. Theater critic Gibbs Cadiz once reported in an article for the Philippine Daily Inquirer that "a critic, emerging from the show somewhat glassy-eyed, pronounced ZsaZsa's aural impact 'all noise'," that "a producer, rolling his eyes, said [his] melodies sounded all alike," and that "a director wondered why the music didn't just go all-out pop or local novelty." But what's success without the little carping? They may have valid points, but Vince's music for ZsaZsa -- which is a feast of a celebration of Filipino popular culture that takes in all sorts of dizzying influences ranging from komiks and OPM (Tuesday Vargas's "Hindi Ako Bakla" and Hotdog's "Ikaw ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko," for example), cheesy 1980s variety shows (like LoveliNess or Vilma!), and the lovable, much-missed cinematic schlock of Viva, Regal, and Seiko Films -- feels and sounds just right. That they remain in your head days and days after you've last seen the show is testament to the music's genius.

It is quite unfortunate, of course, that the only way most of the country have seen the material of the musical is through Joel Lamangan's horrible, dead-on-the-water cinematic version that languished in theaters during one forgettable edition of the annual Metro Manila Film Festival. That film is a virtual exercise in sacrilege (complete with unnecessary new characters perhaps conjured by Mother Lily to give work to talentless teenyboppers), and proves to be so even given the usual excuse that the film version of any text must transcend the original and become its own original art. Chris Millado, Chris Martinez, and Vince de Jesus did exactly that with Carlo Vergara's original material. Joel Lamangan, however, made it his toilet paper, and took the roll with him to some lamentable cinematic shit-hole. Which is sad because the play ends with so much joyful affirmation of love and humanity, designed to put its audiences on their feet, clapping, by the time the last note fades.

That is what I would remember most about ZsaZsa. How it completed one night for me into a brand of funny, sly, wicked, musical magic.

ZsaZsa Zaturnnah ze Muzikal is currently running in CCP Little Theater, with the following schedule: March 6 (with Vince, Nar, Arnold, Kalila at 8pm); March 7 (with Vince, Joey, Red, Meliza at 3pm, and Tuxqs, Joey, Red, and Kalila at 8pm); and March 8 (with Tuxqs, Nar, Red, and Kalila at 3pm and Tuxqs, Joey, Arnold, and Meliza at 8pm). Eula plays ZsaZsa in all the shows. More details are available here.

* something perhaps totally unheard of in the local theater scene: a gay musical based on local material -- not Broadway -- that has people clamoring for more and more.

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