‘Ang Huling El Bimbo’: Jukebox musical delivers pleasantly nostalgic music, but lacks in plot

Photo: Therese Reyes
Photo: Therese Reyes

*Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers. 

The Coconuts Manila crew caught last Friday’s performance of Ang Huling El Bimbo, a musical carried by songs adapted from the discography of Filipino ’90s mega band Eraserheads.

For those who may be unfamiliar, Eraserheads is a rock band often called “The Beatles of the Philippines.” Not because there’s any similarity to their music, but like the four men from Liverpool who defined pop culture in the ’60s, The Eraserheads’ Fab 4 (Ely Buendia, Marcus Adoro, Buddy Zabala, and Raimund Marasigan) created long-standing anthems for Filipino Gen Xers.

The Eraserheads. (Photo from Eraserheads Facebook page)

Ang Huling El Bimbo, which the musical is named after, is arguably the most famous Eraserheads song. It was released in 1996 and tells the story of an unnamed long-lost love who meets a tragic end. The musical is loosely based on the story recounted in this song.

The play is set in two timelines: the present, where the story begins, as well as flashback scenes from the central characters’ experiences during the ’90s. The plot revolves around university students Emman, Anthony, and Hector — all from different family backgrounds — who become roommates and quickly form a friendship.

They meet Joy (Tanya Manalang and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), a student who works in a nearby carinderia (food stall), whom they all develop a special relationship with.

Emman (Boo Gabunada and Oj Mariano) moves to Manila from the countryside to study and becomes a kuya (big brother) figure to Joy, and Anthony (Topper Fabregas and Jon Santos) is a closeted gay man who confides in Joy about his true self. Meanwhile, rich kid-turned-activist Hector (Reb Atadero and Gian Magdangal) falls in love with Joy.

The three main characters Anthony, Emman, and Hector. (Screenshot from “Ang Huling El Bimbo – 2018 Musical Cast Recording” YouTube video)

When the show starts in the present, Emman, Anthony, and Hector are dealing with different pressures in their adult lives. They are brought together by the story’s main inciting incident: Joy has died, her body found in Ermita, Manila’s Padre Faura street — a nod to a line in the song Ang Huling El Bimbo.

The three men are called to the police station where they see each other again after 20 years. Through flashbacks presented on center stage, the audience learns about the events that eventually led to the barkada’s (group of friends) falling out.

Almost the entire first half of the play is used to set up the story, but unfortunately, it spends too much time on montages and not enough on plot points that move the story forward.

For example, the three friends are first introduced when they meet in their dorm room, a heartwarming scene sang to the song Minsan. The three start singing the song while Hector plays the guitar, continuing to do so as they are shown going through various college milestones.

While the song choice was perfect (another classic from Eheads) and the sequence entertaining — the set changes were especially great — the friendship that’s central to the story felt imposed instead of earned. Emman, Anthony, and Hector’s individual relationships with Joy also felt forced and were only alluded to in scenes that felt detached from the main plot.

Screenshot from “Ang Huling El Bimbo Opening” YouTube video.

The show gains momentum towards the end of the first half with a number featuring the song Overdrive. In this scene, the three friends and Joy go on a joyride to Antipolo as a last hurrah before graduation.

This scene is one of the best in the show. With a lone vehicle on center stage, the four characters are jubilant —  singing their hearts out, extending their arms out of the windows, and climbing the car’s hood.

It is here that the closeness of this friendship group is most felt, a tender moment that quickly disappears as it is followed by a gut-wrenching twist. Shortly after arriving at their destination and right before Anthony is about to come out to his friends, hoodlums start ganging up on the group.

They are first attracted to the car but later turn their eyes on Joy. No one from her group of friends is able to save Joy from being taken advantage of — not kuya (big brother) Emman, best friend Anthony, or prospective boyfriend Hector.

This scene was meant to be the big reveal — the secret the friends have been keeping and the reason why they had not seen each other for 20 years.

It is indeed haunting and will stay with the audience way after the curtain has been drawn but like other plot points in the play, it felt somehow detached from the greater story.

The second half of the musical shows the four friends as full-fledged working adults. One would expect their futures to be heavily influenced by the night in Antipolo, but that’s not the case.

While their lives are depicted as unpleasant, the situations they’re in are typical results of growing up and being in “the real world.” In other words, their lives could have ended up just the same, even without the Antipolo incident. Emman ends up with his long-time girlfriend but struggles to provide his family with a comfortable life. Hector, who was once an idealistic artist, becomes a mainstream TV director.

The future that is most connected to the incident is Anthony’s, who was never able to come out to his friends and family and ends up marrying a woman.

Even Joy’s future felt disconnected from the tragic event. She cries about it, but this is quickly overshadowed by another plot point: the carinderia (food stall) where she works goes under and is sold to a sleazy businessman who turns the place into a seedy KTV bar.

Joy is forced to wear skimpy clothes while waiting on customers and, as she becomes an adult, gets pregnant and resigns herself to participating in the shady business that eventually leads to her death. It’s a tragic end for her character, but one that is only slightly related to her abuse.

More tragic is the underdevelopment of Joy’s character throughout the musical, who, unfortunately, is little more than a manic pixie dream girl who seems the exist just so the three male leads can “learn from her.”

This is a shame because Manalang and Lauchengco-Yulo, who play young and adult Joy respectively, are both top performers.

Screenshot from “Ang Huling El Bimbo Opening” YouTube video.

The themes the musical tried to discuss — adulthood, sexual identity, and the loss of innocence — are all commendable but could have used more nuance.

While the plot is uneven and involves a third act twist that falls flat, the play does come alive in moments of specificity. For instance, when the three main characters are introduced, they’re walking the streets of Manila — a colorful setup with noisy street vendors and kids playing on the street. It also has nods to local pop culture and small allusions to the University of the Philippines, where the Eraserheads were formed.

The musical shines whenever it reimagines classic songs and turns them on their heads. One example is how it stylized With A Smile, one of the Eraserheads’ more optimistic songs, that was given a haunting gospel-like arrangement sung during the graduation ceremony scene right after the tragic road trip. Here, the graduates sing the song as if convincing themselves that everything will be alright, even though deep inside they know their lives have been changed for the worse.

The leads are certainly commendable for their performances, but the star of the show was the orchestra, which was able to seamlessly transition from rock to classic music to emotion-heavy instrumentals. It also presented excellent covers of Eraserheads’ classics.

The crowd was clearly into the show, and basked in the nostalgia of it all — and when, during curtain all, the cast sang the line “Gusto mo bang sumama? (Do you want to join?)” from the Eraserheads song Alapaap, many of those in the packed Newport Performing Arts Theater were already giving them a standing ovation.

Ang Huling El Bimbo succeeds in reimagining well-loved songs that still carry tons of cultural clout for its intended audience, but the show falls prey to a problem that many jukebox musicals before it have encountered: a convoluted plot with underdeveloped characters that miss the mark in telling a compelling story.  

Ang Huling El Bimbo will run until Aug. 26, Sunday at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Resorts World Manila. Tickets run from PHP1,000 (US$18.75) to PHP3,500 (US$65.63), and are available on TicketWorld.

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