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Love—and music—in a time of disaster

An urban poor community of ramshackle shanties and perennially flooded alleys is hardly the usual setting for a musical. Neither are the themes of frustration and injustice, inchoate dreams and constricted ambitions, class and poverty considered material for a rock opera.

Yet that is what we find in Barangay (village) Venizia, which, like its namesake city in Italy, is navigable only by watercraft, which maneuver through the flooded lanes ferrying residents to and from their homes. But there is little of the romance that draws tourists from all over to Venice. Instead, in Venizia one feels a growing sense of despair, frustration and mounting anger at the loss of opportunity, if it was there in the first place.

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In Venizia can be found families struggling to rise above their condition, searching for a way out—any way out—of their water-logged existence. Among them is the family of Aileen, her father Kiel and mother Mercy who try to outrun the wolves at the door, including the landlord threatening eviction. There is also their employer Mary Jane, the village head who owns a shoe-making operation that is losing out to mass-marketed footwear. To survive, Mary Jane cuts the wages of her employees, even if she knows this will only plunge them even deeper into debt and despair.

Amid such desperation, Aileen nurses her musical dreams, coming up with the idea that if she manages to produce a video of her performance and upload it into YouTube, she would be “discovered” by American TV host Ellen Degeneres (if she could do it for Charice, surely she has room for one more young Filipino girl?) who would then open doors for her, launch her into an international career, and rescue her family from poverty.

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This is the dramatic heart—however absurd it sounds—of the highly-successful musical

“Rak of Aegis,” enjoying an extended run until the end of the month at the Peta Theater.

The unusual title is a take-off from the American musical “Rock of Ages,” but while this musical pays homage to the “Golden Age” of rock, “Rak of Aegis” is an homage to the local band “Aegis,” best-known for their “power ballads” that filled the airwaves in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The music of Aegis, especially their fervid songs that plumbed the depths of unrequited love, never managed to fade away. They live on in countless karaoke machines and neighborhood singing contests, with amateurs wailing their hearts and throats out trying to reach the stratospheric octaves that the three women lead singers of Aegis made popular.

And just to prove how durable and beloved Aegis songs are, one of the winning numbers of “The Voice Kids Philippines” grand champion Lyca was perhaps Aegis’ biggest and most familiar hit: “Basang-basa sa Ulan (Drenched in the Rain).”

The song, about a forlorn lover caught in the rain while mourning a lost love is an anthem to the “senti” Pinoy, who has always reveled in sad love songs, what a friend calls “self-lacerating” dirges, but still managing to sing despite heartbreak and loss. Expectedly, it makes for a grand closing number at the end of the first act of “Rak of Aegis.”

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As director Maribel Legarda tells it, the germ of the idea was born in a joke, a pun, by musical director Myke Salomon, who remarked that if America has “Rock of Ages,” then the Philippines has a “Rak of Aegis.” Thus was born the idea of a musical tribute to the band.

From such a flimsy premise, writer Liza Magtoto was tasked with coming up with a book which could give the loose collection of Aegis songs structure and story. In her notes, Magtoto writes that the story is based on her experience debriefing survivors of Tropical Storm “Ondoy” in Laguna. Though Magtoto admits her frustration and irritation at the way the Filipino’s vaunted “resilience” is bandied about by politicians and officials, she admits that the stories told her by the typhoon survivors, and the Aegis songs themselves are all about surviving a disaster and, more important, “finding love in the time of calamity.”

I won’t spoil the fun and tell you now how the people of Venizia manage to raise their heads above the floodwaters. There was a point midway through the show when I wondered if we would get our “happy ending.” The solution arrived at is both creative and celebratory, and affirming of the uniquely Filipino knack for, yes, resilience. “This is a show every Filipino should watch!” I exclaimed even as I was on my feet applauding the cast.

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And well they deserved it! Even if I rued that we missed the performance of husband-and-wife team Isay Alvarez and Robert Seña, there was no reason to feel shortchanged or deprived.

I caught the performance of Kim Molina as Aileen, who astonishes with a powerful voice emanating from her tiny frame. OJ Mariano and Neomi Gonzales effectively play off their contrasting characters’ personalities as Aileen’s parents, though Mariano has a blistering duet with Kalila Aguilos who plays Mary Jane, the village chair.

Other notables: Poppert Bernadas as Aileen’s suitor Kenny (such confident stage presence!), Pepe Herrera who steals many scenes (funny lines, endearing personality) as Tolits, Phi Palmos as the fey and knowing Jewel, and comedian Arnel Ignacio who wrings out every bit of acting business from his cameo as Fernan. And the voice quality of the entire cast and ensemble is superb! (Don’ take my word for it, the venerable “Mr. C,” Ryan Cayabyab, was just as appreciative!)

We don’t need a Sona—or the protests it provokes—to understand the true state of the nation. “Rak of Aegis” is a consciousness-raising tool, a sociological lesson, a love story and a tribute to Aegis in one improbable, highly entertaining package.

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TAGS: disasters, Floods, Music, nation, news, Poverty
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