06 July 2018

Notes on 'Binondo – A Tsinoy musical'

The title alone invites skepticism. It registers as an era-defining theatrical production; and while the ambition is evident, Binondo – A Tsinoy Musical hasn't gone past Fil-Chi stereotypes and rehashed romance plots. You've seen it all before, I promise.

We follow the fates of Filipina club singer Lily (Sheila Valderrama-Martinez) and Chinese scholar Ah Tiong (Arman Ferrer), from 1972 Manila Chinatown all the way to 1986 in a deathbed. Fourteen years are condensed into two and a half hours, within which they meet, fall in love and apart, and meet again. And jammed in between these pivotal moments are things that make for a prime time soap opera: quick and frequent set changes, long and sappy dialogues, a lost and found child, hospital reconciliation, and a cultural revolution to boot.

I like my telenovelas. Something about their grandness, their heedless exaggerations remind me that I am a true-blue sentimental woman. That it feels good to hold on to wild ideals. Binondo strays from the typical mawkish fare, however, in its failure to embrace its mawkishness. For a show where there is so much going on, it drags as if nothing is going on, proving that a talented cast plus an abundance of resources can't turn a drab material into gold.

At the opening night of Binondo – A Tsinoy Musical. The show, directed by Joel Lamangan, runs until this weekend at The Theatre at Solaire.

No fireworks or giant disco ball can atone for the lack of verve onstage. What's frustrating is that even Binondo is robbed of its character. Audience members who have little knowledge of the place would be none the wiser after curtain call. We're given a glimpse of its allure in the beginning, at the autumn festival, with logical Ah Tiong disbelieving the gods. Yet the opportunity to play off this intriguing tradition is squandered. Instead it becomes another box to be ticked in the list of cultural clichés to showcase.

Thank heavens we have Ferrer's powerful vocals to keep us awake. But he can only do so much in a musical that seems to forget the term's root word. The score has neither lines nor melodies that cling to memory.

Other bright spots in the show are Douglas Nierras's stunning choreography (some of which I can still vividly re-play in my mind) and the committed dancers who execute it. Sadly, the same can't be said about the lead actors, whose tentative movements add to the already discomforting experience of sitting through a poorly written spectacle.

Maybe Binondo has to rethink what it wants to say. You can sense the desire to make a statement, as if that's an end in itself. Too focused on the bigger picture, the musical neglects the intimate details. All I ask as an audience is one real emotion — a genuine laughter, a sudden courage to try the unknown. I'm not getting any in this production.

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