Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I don’t think I can count the number of times 2018 has made me want to give up. With the daily assault of fake news, natural disasters, and social injustice, it can feel so often like the world is on the verge of ending.
A few things have offered respite. This year’s music, cinema, and theater have reliably channelled the fraught times we live in, offering a running commentary or giving us larger-than-life moments of catharsis. “Mula sa Buwan” is a prime example of how when all artistic elements work in consonance, you can be transported to the moon and back.
Pat Valera and William Elvin Manzano’s musical transplants Edmund Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” to World War II Philippines. The 1897 play might be best known as one of the oldest catfishing stories. Cyrano and Christian both love Roxane, but Christian doesn’t have the wit to woo her and the poet-soldier Cyrano believes his comically large nose makes him unlovable. The latter then helps orchestrate a grand romance for the two, writing all of Christian’s wartime love letters to Roxane.
The authors adapted Soc Rodrigo’s translation of the play and wrote their own songs for the material. “At first, it was patterned after the sarsuela, but we didn’t want it to be something nostalgic. We wanted to also infuse it with pop, so even though it’s the 1940s, you hear other sounds. Because the point is it’s not supposed to be a historical play,” Valera says.
“We used the kundiman but we were also very influenced by rock and also a lot of OPM,” adds Valera. This rich sonic vocabulary is at play throughout the soundtrack (highlights of which are available on Spotify), with classic Filipino-style ballads like “Ikaw” or roaring rock anthems like “Manifesto.”
Valera has taken a long journey with the material, first directing the material as “Cyrano: Isang Sarsuela” for his thesis in 2010 before running it under its current title in 2016. He says the 2018 run, playing at the 800-seat Hyundai Hall at Ateneo De Manila’s Areté, is the most complete manifestation of his vision. “It’s like reading a book. There are certain books that when you read when you’re young — you’re drawn to it, but when you read it when you’re older, you see the bigger picture because you have lived more life and experienced more.”
On such a big stage, the material has room to really feel larger than life. Ohm David’s dreamy, constantly shifting set design is gorgeous. The cast does incredible work, carrying the material through its moments of exuberance, laughter, and tragedy.
Nicco Manalo, who originated the role in Valera’s first production, is back as Cyrano. He gives an instinctive performance, alive with the character’s wit and the immense sorrow behind it. “Honestly, I can say that I’m more relaxed onstage. Sometimes it feels like sinasaniban na lang ako,” Manalo says. “When I did it before, I was [self-]conscious, I guess. I wanted to know where I wanted to go, ‘Saan ba ko punta? Saan ako next?’ But when I did it for this run, hinahaayan ko na lang na lumipad ako.”
As Roxane, Gab Pangilinan plays the heart of the show. Her emotive performance really drives in the most heart-wrenching moments of the play’s second act. “I watched this musical before in 2016 and when I saw it, I really, really wanted to be a part of it,” Pangilinan says.
Set in the last great war the Philippines has lived through, “Mula sa Buwan” makes a case for the importance of art in times of socio-political upheaval. Cyrano and his company of soldiers never lose sight of their love of words and music. It is their source of joy in times of peace and it keeps them alive through the worst of the war.
Valera says, “The play can talk about culture. The play can talk about hugot and love. The play can talk about history or loss of history, but there’s a distinct part of it that I think is important right now, in these times especially — that when we are pulled or tempted by other forces, you still retain that goodness in you and you see that in different characters. They make mistakes, yet they find redemption because they never lose hope.”
“Mula Sa Buwan” is a brave reminder that dreaming has its place in times of turmoil, that it isn’t an escape from living inasmuch as it has the power to move life itself — just as the moon has its pull on the world beneath it.
“Mula sa Buwan’”s limited run continues until Nov. 25 at the Hyundai Hall at the Ateneo de Manila University’s Areté. Tickets are available here.