An onstage miracle
The real high point at the preview of the musical “Himala” came after the cast took a bow and director and set designer Ed Lacson Jr. acknowledged important personalities in the audience. Everyone rose to acknowledge writer and lyricist Ricky Lee, and composer and musical director Vincent de Jesus, but the loudest, most sustained applause and cheers were reserved for Nora Aunor. The original Elsa in the movie version, “Ate Guy” has come to embody the simple village girl who is transformed by a vision of the Blessed Mother into a spiritual healer and magnet for the combined forces of religion, superstition, greed and celebrity that swirl around her in her village of Cupang.
In the minutes it took for the rest of the cast and giddy fans to surround Aunor and indulge in selfies and group shots, everyone was transported back to 1982, when “Himala” was first shown in movie houses and catapulted Aunor from a “bubblegum” teen star to a major film performer.
The movie has since transcended the narrow confines of celluloid. Scriptwriter Lee based his script on the real-life tale of a teenage girl who briefly captured the world’s imagination when she claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary in her impoverished island. But director Ishmael Bernal, since named a National Artist for film, transformed the barebones story into a social critique and a spiritual, existential treatise. The film has since garnered a slew of awards, including being named, in 2008, the Viewer’s Choice Award for the “Best Film of All Time” from the Asia-Pacific region in the CNN Asia-Pacific Screen Awards. It is now a classic.
And then in 2003, two decades after the movie was released, Lee and De Jesus collaborated on the book and music of “Himala: Isang Musikal,” introducing Elsa and her townmates to a whole new generation of fans in a whole new different medium. The magic has transcended the years.
“Himala” the musical is making a comeback this year, onstage at the performance venue of Circuit Makati. The events of the Marian apparition take place in a bare space, bordered by bamboo fencing, with the burol or hillock where Elsa sees Our Lady in one corner. The audience is seated on tiers of seats surrounding this clearing, hovering over the townsfolk of Cabra like a curious horde of vultures.
There’s an entirely new cast in this version of “Himala,” headlined by two compelling performers: Aicelle Santos as Elsa, and Bituin Escalante as Aling Saling, Elsa’s mother. They are fortified by a lineup of solid supports: Kakki Teodoro as Nimia and Neomi Gonzales as Chayong, who together with Elsa, form a troika of childhood girlfriends estranged by circumstances; David Ezra as Orly, a photographer who visits Cabra to document the events surrounding the apparition; Sandino Martin as Pilo, Chayong’s boyfriend; and Floyd Tena as the parish priest.
I had known of Santos mainly from her appearances in a noontime variety show where she stopped pedestrians and jeepney drivers outside the TV studio and challenged them to a version of streetside karaoke. Even then I was suitably impressed with her vocal power. “Himala” allows Aicelle to show off her acting chops.
I take much pride in being among the audience during Bituin’s stage debut in “Rent,” where she was just a member of the chorus. But even then she outshone everyone else, so it was no surprise to me that she soon emerged as a star. In “Himala,” she is in fine voice, lending her vocal prowess to give Aling Saling gravitas and grounding.
Toff de Venecia, artistic director of Sandbox Collective, which together with sister outfit 9 Works Theatrical, produced this version of “Himala,” remembers how he “couldn’t stop bawling” when he saw the musical at Peta Theater.
Being familiar with the movie and the musical, I wasn’t exactly moved to tears. But my chest swelled with pride at how Elsa the barrio girl lives on in the hearts of young Filipinos, drawn to the simple tale of a young woman who thinks she has been visited by the Virgin but comes to realize that “miracles are to be found in our hearts.”
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