11 December 2019

Notes on 'Lam-Ang'

Why do we tell stories? Perhaps because reality happens only when witnessed. And it's never enough to speak once; repetition matters — over and over, louder and clearer — otherwise the story ends for good. Either it dies in silence or is silenced by another narrative.

There's no hiding Tanghalang Pilipino's drive to educate and foster nationalism by re-presenting Philippine history and literature in its productions. What they've done well in Lam-Ang is champion the local epic tradition while resisting any temptation to please an impatient audience. It exudes gravitas even as it infuses humor and playfulness here and there. The musical is careful not to succumb to gimmickry or oversimplification, challenging theatergoers to listen from start to finish.

At face value, the show seems to be geared towards students fulfilling a course requirement, that any hope of reaching a wider market rests on its lead star, JC Santos. But anyone who appreciates a thoughtful production is in for a surprise.

Lam-Ang: An ethno-epic musical. Tanghalang Pilipino; book: Eljay Castro Deldoc; music and lyrics: Jen Darlene Torres; direction: Fitz Edward Torres Bitana and Marco Viaña. (CCP Little Theater, 6 December 2019)

Lam-Ang is visually stunning. There's something worthwhile to behold wherever your eyes land. Each detail (in costume, prop, dance and movement) has a purpose. Musically, Lam-Ang offers hair-raising chants and tribal beats as a welcome trade-off for pop-inspired tunes that dominate modern musicals. (You may not have an ear-worm when you get home, but you'll remember how moved you were by the sounds.)

While Santos's singing voice leaves a lot to be desired, there's no doubt that he can command the stage and elicit sympathy. Opposite him as Kannoyan is Anna Luna, who, like her character, is a force to be reckoned with, proving that she's more than her reputation. She comes out and we're enchanted. Another powerful female character is Tex Ordoñez-De Leon's Baglan (shaman), who serves as a sort of omniscient narrator and rightfully, with Ordoñez-De Leon's rich vocal tone, the entire musical's anchor.

In Lam-Ang, one bears witness to an ancient narrative, so far in time that it's almost foreign. Yet it's told in a way that feels fresh and familiar. The word "brave" is nowadays appended to anything with a bit of an edge, but I would say that this production deserves the tag. From where I sit I see a creative team that has taken liberty in crafting a Lam-Ang that Filipinos can rally behind; and has so much faith in his story to believe that it will find its audience. After all, how many would go out of their way to watch a play, let alone an adaptation of an ethno-epic poem?

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