Choosing to stage “Walang Aray” for their comeback to live theater is a clever move for PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association).
While they could have easily banked on sure hits like the long-running “Rak of Aegis,” they went with relatively newer material; “Walang Aray” had only previously been produced as part of their theater laboratory, and had been “waiting in the wings,” as they say, for some time already. So with this fresh material, plus a collaboration with mainstream talents from Star Magic, and highlighting the genre Pinoys love the most—romantic comedy—“Walang Aray” seems to have everything you’d need for a successful show.
But everything I’ve just said sounds diminishing of the true genius that is contained within this musical. It’s definitely more than just the genre or the love teams (though we can’t deny how these help draw in newer audiences).
“Walang Aray” is a clever piece of theater from its very core: Made both as a spoof and a tribute to the iconic Severino Reyes zarzuela “Walang Sugat,” it touches on timeless themes of love, nationalism, and bravery, but told in a way that is very in touch with the times.
The easiest thing to say about this musical is that it is definitely a riot to watch. It is hilarious from start to finish, each cast member’s acute sense of comedic timing commendable. The catchy musical numbers, created by musical director Vince Lim, make use of a variety of genres, from pop to rap, novelty to power ballad, giving it a wide appeal that helps keep the musical engaging, even for a roughly two-and-a-half-hour show.
While “Walang Aray” retains the Spanish colonial period setting of the original zarzuela, it injects pop culture and internet references in the dialogue, choreography, and props. Spotting these easter eggs (which I will not talk about further so that you, too, can laugh at the theater when you see it) add to the show’s comedic value.
Although most of the story flows in an expected way (it does feature the Filipinos’ revolution against the Spaniards. We all know how that goes), the music, language, and comedy ties it all up in a fresh package.
As a spoof and a tribute, the musical makes a case for both history and the art of theater: That it can be approachable, fun, and easy to grasp.
Of course, the fun (and subsequently the overall success) of the musical also depends on the cast. There are three sets of leads to choose from in this run of “Walang Aray”: PETA artist-teacher Gio Gahol and Marynor Madamesila (alumni of PETA productions like “Rak of Aegis”), Star Magic love team KD Estrada and Alexa Ilacad (who are both making their theater debut), and Jon Abella and Shaira Opsimar (who both recently appeared in Barefoot Theatre Collaborative’s “Mula sa Buwan”).
Gahol and Madamesila have a very enjoyable chemistry on stage as young lovers Tenyong and Julia. Gahol’s Tenyong has that charming kapilyuhan, and he easily navigates the shift in Tenyong’s priorities from a very personal stake on love in Act 1, to a grander purpose in Act 2 (despite the story’s overall light approach to this revolutionary period). Madamesila, meanwhile, is stellar as Julia. She commands the stage every time she is on it, that one’s eyes can’t help but gravitate towards her whether she is doing a soulful solo, or engaging in playful banter—especially with her “momsie” Juana (Neomi Gonzales).
The changes from “Walang Sugat” to “Walang Aray” don’t just end with its music and language though. Characterizations have also been tweaked, making each character someone the audience can connect with, or at least better sympathize with. Julia, for example, is not just your traditional, obedient dalagang Filipina portrayed in the original zarzuela. Here, she is spunky, outspoken, confident, and even a bit flirty. Even Miguel’s (Bene Manaois/Jarred Jaicten) character arc takes a surprising turn, making him a character that is more than just the rich ilustrado love rival.
Riotous and kilig-ridden as the musical may be, it also touches on a few uncomfortable themes. The elitist, high-and-mighty friar of their town, Padre Alfaro (Johnnie Moran) is the musical’s textbook antagonist. The friars’ funny intro number notwithstanding, as it is with works from the colonial period, the friar is the authority to be toppled down. In “Walang Aray,” it is not only because of his discriminatory remarks and actions towards the Filipinos, but also because of his detestable objectification of Julia. But this also only points to an unfortunate truth: Even in this century, misogyny and the male gaze continue to plague us. That’s on top of other chronic, still-rampant social ills like tyranny and oppression.
Although these themes are touched on in the musical, they primarily serve as context for the overall story. It isn’t a deep dive, and maybe that’s okay. Ultimately this is a story of an ideal, a hopeful one where we can fight for what we want and get our happy ending, too.
PETA’s comeback musical is a respite from the harsh realities of today, but it isn’t mindless fun for the sake of it. It only keeps these problems at arm’s length—the pain not entirely forgotten, just momentarily numbed with laughter, so that even the audience can say, even just for the time they are in the theater—walang aray!
“Walang Aray” is written by Rody Vera, with music by Vince Lim. Directed by Ian Segarra. Choreography by Gio Gahol, production design by Julio Garcia, costume design by JayLo Conanan. It stars Jon Abella, KD Estrada, and Gio Gahol as Tenyong; Alexa Ilacad, Marynor Madamesila, and Shaira Opsimar as Julia; Jarred Jaicten and Bene Manaois as Miguel; Kiki Baento as Monica; Calon Matobato as Lucas; Gie Onida and Norbs Portales as Don Tadeo; Neomi Gonzales as Juana; Johnnie Moran as Padre Alfaro; Yeyin de la Cruz, Ayla Garcia, Ada Tayao, Tom Bienvenida, Donn Boco, and Gerard Dy as ensemble; Gardo Exconde and Csairus Habla as swings.
“Walang Aray” runs until May 14 at the PETA Theater in New Manila, Quezon City.