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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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Sunday, September 21, 2014

entry arrow1:33 PM | A Musical Theatre of Vegetables

[A shorter version of this article appears in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, here.]



The musicalization of a beloved tale has always been par for the course for theatre—think of the reinvention of fairy tales in Into the Woods, or the seemingly endless parade of old movies redone for Broadway—but Alamat ng Ampalaya, Augie Rivera’s beloved children’s book which won much-acclaim, and many hearts, when it was first published by Adarna House 19 years ago, seems particularly suited for a theatrical adaptation.

The story has a feisty heart, it has a subtle moral (“Eat your vegetables!”) dressed up with much color, and it has, at its center, a complex protagonist who needs redemption—qualities that make the material a double-edged entertainment that plays well for both children and adults.

“I wrote the story in 1995 when I was working as head writer for Batibot,” Mr. Rivera recalls. “While I was singing ‘Bahay Kubo’—I can’t recall for what reason—I realized that the ampalaya was not included in the quintessential song about Philippine vegetables. I did some research and found out that there was also no existing old legend about the ampalaya. So I decided that I will write my own ‘original alamat’ about this often hated vegetable.”



Publicity officer Ian Rosales Casocot, author Augie Rivera, director Dessa Quesada-Palm, lighting designer Loren Rivera, and costume designer Carlo Pagunaling.

What resulted was a well-crafted tale about Ampalaya, a charming but envious resident of Sariwa, who coveted the color, the texture, and the aroma of other fruits and vegetables, and proceeds to steal these very qualities, turning the little community upside-down. Drama, of course, ensues. There’s a trial, too.

And the response from the public for the public has been phenomenal: “Many great things have happened to my life since the publication of my first book,” Mr. Rivera remembers. “Parents and kids would email me their comments about the book. One time a parent came up to me at the mall and said: ‘Dahil sa book mo, kumakain na ng ampalaya ang anak ko!’ And I’d reply: ‘Talaga po? Buti pa siya!’ I was only joking of course, but actually, I only learned how to eat ampalaya in college. I also hated it as a kid! But I am thankful that after 19 years, the book is still in print, and is still being read and enjoyed by a new generation of readers, both children and young parents.” And this may be so because the story Mr. Rivera concocted is so universal it could withstand reimagination. Like musicals.

Meanwhile, in New York, the much-awarded guitarist Michael Dadap—husband of the violinist Yo Cheng Ma and brother-in-law of the celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma—was contemplating what musical program to present for an educational organization he was part of, which was celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2000. Mr. Dadap ran into a good friend, who gave him a copy of Mr. Rivera’s children’s book. “I thought it was a very witty and creative story,” he said. “I began thinking of songs that fit the story, and what inspired me to write the melodies and some of the dialogues and song lyrics were the distinctive flavors, tastes, colors, textures, and even the sensitive nature of the vegetables.”

Together with Patty Yusah, who helped Mr. Dadap write the libretto, they hammered out a short musical program that played off the many characteristics of the vegetables in the story. “The more I thought about this idea,” Mr. Dadap said, “the more I became drawn to it. Inasmuch as the story deals with many contemporary issues, I also felt like I was being transported back to the time of my growing up years, when making friends and losing them seemed to be a daily occurrence. The whole project allowed me to rediscover my inner self through the lens of my childhood years.” For Mr. Dadap, that meant rekindling the youthful vigor and energy that he he said were lost in the process of growing up with different struggles and challenges.

“I almost forgot that once upon a time, there was this innocent spirit that wanted to share, to smile, to trust. I was once free-spirited, and quite easy to forgive other’s mistakes, and my own as well. The vegetables reminded me of these,” Mr. Dadap said. “They exist because they have a purpose to serve other than themselves, like healing hunger, curing wounds, and making someone smile by their scent, colors, and natural beauty, which we sometimes take for granted. They are a part of our nature. They are seemingly simple, but are incredibly meaningful. We’ve lost these as we grow up. I guess so do the vegetables: they wither when fully grown. But writing the songs and creating the lyrics reminded me of the friends I grew up with. That made me smile. I hope the musical will make others smile, too.”

The students of Iskwelahang Pilipino staged the first performance of Ampalaya the Musical at Regis College in Boston. The original play was shorter, and the orchestration was set to the school’s rondalla ensemble. By 2006, Dumaguete’s Ating Pamana, a performing group led by Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez of Silliman University, also staged a performance while on tour in the U.S. “It was during that performance in New York that I got to hear the score in a different setting. Ampalaya took a new musical life. I realized that it could be developed into a full musical play,” Mr. Dadap said.

The full treatment he dreamed for so long will finally come to play with a production set to open in Dumaguete City on September 19, with shows running until the 22nd,at the famed Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium, which is touted as the Cultural Center of Southern Philippines.



Orkestra Sin Arco director Mathilda Limbaga-Erojo and composer Michael Dadap.



Musical director Elizabeth Susan Vista-Suarez, stage managers Andrew Alvarez and Bethel Abigail Almirol, and director Dessa Quesada-Palm.



Cultural Officer Diomar Abrio. It was his idea to stage Ampalaya at the Luce in an expanded form.




Some of the production crew for Ampalaya with Onna Quizo as Ubodman sa Saging.


For this production, Mr. Dadap added around eleven new songs, and wrote incidental music and a few scenes more scenes to expand the original material he made. From a 40-minute mini-musical, the Ampalaya the Luce will witness “has sprouted taller, and longer,” says the composer. Produced by Silliman’s Cultural Affairs Committee, the new musical will be directed by PETA’s Dessa Quesada-Palm, with musical direction by Ms. Vista-Suarez and set design by Lex Marcos.

But it was also a practical master-class in play production by seasoned theatre veterans with students of Silliman. “As a member of this university theater, I’ve always found it inspiring to have more experienced artists working with our students and young local talents,” Ms. Palm said. “So to see Michael Dadap teaching and conducting our orchestra, musical director Susan Suarez working on the singing of non-music students, choreographer Angelo Sayson weaving his movements with the actors, set designer Lex Marcos instructing local artists on the rendering of the sets, costume designer John Carlo Pagunaling explaining his design and exhibiting his cloth palettes, technical director Barbie Tan-Tiongco showing a detailed ground plan—and more to expect with lighting designer Loren Rivera and animation artist Ramon del Prado—I feel that the artistic collaboration is already nurturing so much of our next generation’s aesthetics, discipline and strive for excellence.”

For Ms. Palm, the greatest challenge she encountered in staging the musical was essentially expand the material, considering that like many children’s stories, the plot was quite simple and necessarily predictable. “We are also exploring the use of three languages for this musical. Let’s see how the audience will take it,” she said.








The play’s message is paramount: “Personally I want people to experience the ugliness of envy and greed, what it can do to people especially if it remains as a blind spot. The other side of that would be to be more cognizant of your own gifts and strengths and to embrace, and nurture that,” Ms. Palm said. “But I also want children to get to know and fall in love with the Filipino vegetables. How many children still know, moreso have eaten, the vegetables mentioned in the folk song ‘Bahay Kubo’?”

Not many, one could guess. And perhaps with some dramatic delight provided by this play, the healthy acquaintance could start. Plus the songs are quite hummable, too.

“I hope it will give people joy and laughter,” Mr. Dadap said. “I am also hoping that it will take them back to a happy journey revisiting their childhood days. Seeing friends through the vegetables, forgiving, hoping and loving. As the last line of the song in this musical says, ‘Lets stay awake to see the morning sun, bringing hope, giving love.’ I hope this message is contagious to all audiences wherever their life’s journey may be.”





Ampalaya the Musical opens on September 19, with shows until September 22. Tickets are available at P200, P300, and P500. All tickets and season passes for Luce Auditorium shows are available for sale at the CAC Office at the College of Performing and Visual Arts Building II, and at the theater lobby before the show begins. For ticket reservations and other inquiries, call (035) 422-4365 or 09173235953.

Photos by Urich Calumpang.

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