24 July 2015

Nothing but a feel-good throwback to the ‘80s

A musical adaptation of Bituing Walang Ningning (originally a Nerissa Cabral serialized comics strip made into a movie in 1985 and a TV series in 2006) is somehow inevitable. It tells the story of singers Dorina Pineda and Lavinia Arguelles — the former intent on building a career and the latter, on staying on top. The drama of show business, its spectacle, not to mention the celebrities’ occasional histrionics, can be fully realized in theater.

As such, the creative team behind Bituing Walang Ningning the Musical exploited the medium, creating set pieces where Lavinia (Cris Villonco) and Dorina (Monica Cuenca) can perform like true divas. Particularly memorable was the Pangarap Na Bituin number where Dorina sang solo on center stage, her gown blending with the starry sky backdrop, making it appear as if she herself were among the stars.

It’s amusing that there is some degree of parallelism between lead actors Villonco and Cuenca and their characters (we’re not sure if this was the intention during casting). Villonco has been around in the business as a theater mainstay and has become a darling among theater-goers. But the similarities with Lavinia end there. In an interview, Villonco shared that being the bad guy onstage was unfamiliar territory to her and her angelic face was a liability at first.

And like Dorina, Cuenca is a newcomer who bested hundreds of auditioners vying for the role that Sharon Cuneta popularized in the movie adaption. The musical was her debut on the big stage, but those who didn’t know it might not be able to tell with the way she managed her nerves.
The ladies were joined by Mark Bautista and Ronnie Liang, who played Lavinia’s boyfriend-slash-manager Nico Escobar and composer Garry Diaz, respectively.

But the brightest stars of the show had to be veterans Jon Santos, who was Auntie, Dorina’s aunt and guardian; and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo, who was Edith, a no-nonsense entertainment journalist. The two took on their roles with ease, allowing the audience the pleasure of seeing characters and not actors.

With a well-known narrative at its disposal, the show banked on the audience’ readiness to go down memory lane. It featured OPM hits of the past (Points of View especially pleasing the crowd); referenced ‘80s fashion, which was marked by big hair and flamboyance; highlighted the emergence of compact disc, which overthrew the cassette; and even brought in a Kuya Germs variety show.

While all these were entertaining, the dimmer spots in its storytelling couldn’t be ignored. The tension between the divas was barely felt. Lavinia was catty but far from conniving, or at least not convincingly; and Dorina’s switch from avid Lavinia fan to worst enemy and back to supporter all happened without an equivalent motivation.

Even the conflict between Nico and Gary, who were both after Dorina’s heart, didn’t have the chance to properly brew.

At best, Bituing Walang Ningning the Musical is a massive feel-good throwback to the ‘80s. Expect to have lots of fun but little empathy towards the characters.

—Originally published on GIST.PH

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