Note: This is a highly personal review and may mention spoilers. It will also mention adult themes and instances of sexual and substance abuse, as seen in the musical.
Anyone who knows the side of my life as a theater fan will know that “Ang Huling El Bimbo” (AHEB) was one of my favorite musicals in 2019. I saw it eight times.
And so it was only natural that for the 2023 rerun, I made sure to watch it not just once on opening weekend—but three times within its first month. This isn’t to say the musical is perfect and flawless (more on that later), but I must admit that if you’re looking for a show to induct non-theater-goers into appreciating the world of the performing arts, AHEB may be a good place to start.
After weeks of wading through much nostalgia and sitting with complicated feelings on the rerun (never mind juggling the insane revenge theater schedule these past few months—it’s hard to process so many shows at once!), my main take could be summed up as such: While new theater-goers will definitely discover the magic of live theater here, returning audiences can at least count on the show’s reliable nostalgia, and probably find a few new favorites in it as well.
The old and the new
The 2023 rerun claims that there have been several updates to the material. The essence and flow of the story remain largely the same though, and most changes are subtle but did give a bit more nuance to some of the characters and events depicted.
AHEB still follows three young men—Hector, Emman, and Anthony—as they navigate college life and meet young turon vendor Joy, with whom they all build close bonds as love interest, “sibling,” and confidante respectively. The story crosses two timelines, from their college days in the ’90s to the present day, when old bonds have frayed and the three men cross paths again only after being summoned to the police station upon Joy’s death. Here, they find out she has apparently been put on the drug watchlist. As the musical progresses, we get hints of the truth that led to Joy’s demise and the circumstances of her life after a traumatic incident in their youth strains their relationships.[READ: ‘Ang Huling El Bimbo’ returns to the stage this April—here’s what’s new]
In this year’s iteration of AHEB, the first and most obvious update has been the addition of a trigger warning for the show. After being flagged by netizens after its online stream for its lack of warnings over sensitive content, the production has now included a simple yet strong content warning played at the beginning of the show, narrated by the actresses portraying young and present-day Joy (Gab Pangilinan and Katrine Sunga, respectively).
The sensitive scene in question, and unfortunately the turning point of the musical, sees Joy sexually assaulted as her three friends are held helpless at gunpoint. The scene, while still unsettling, seems to have been shortened and made less graphic.
The book redeems itself in the second act, as Tiya Dely (masterfully portrayed once again by Gawad Buhay award-winning actress Sheila Francisco) delivers a charged tirade against main antagonist Councilor Arturo Banlaoi (Jamie Wilson). This time around, it is more vicious and vindictive—as he deserves.
The role of little Ligaya, Joy’s orphaned daughter, is also given a bit more meat. Through her, we’re given a glimpse into how much deeper Joy feels for her old friends, and how much trust she still has in them despite them having abandoned her. Scenes with Ligaya have always been tear-jerkers, but even more so now.
But much of the magic of the musical happens in the first act. Myke Salomon’s arrangements of the quintessential Eraserheads hits may well be considered as equally iconic now, and paired with the powerful choreography by Stephen Viñas and Fritz Esase, make for applause-worthy numbers.
The high-spirited “Tindahan ni Aling Nena” and the snappy, rifle drill-inspired “Pare Ko” continue to be showstoppers, and the delightful “Cha Dely Medley” that ties together “Shirley,” “Tikman,” and “Bogchi Hokbu” is such a bop, it’s tempting to dance along (but please don’t. Not while the show is ongoing).
And “Alapaap,” of course, with Pangilinan’s soaring voice, continues to cement itself as the musical’s most iconic scene.
There’s also much to look forward to in terms of the 2023 casting. Topper Fabregas, who is returning to the role of young Anthony (having portrayed it first in 2018), showcases his strength in witty banter and timing, delivering some of the best comebacks throughout the show. His young Anthony, while a tinge subtler, is charming and effortlessly funny without resorting to campiness.
Opera singer Katrine Sunga’s musical theater debut as present-day Joy is also worth noting. With a strong, full voice that draws you to her every moment she sings on stage, she manages to capture the tenderness of a mother to Ligaya, and contrasts as she flips 180 with her toughness towards Banlaoi. (Personally, her portrayal of Joy feels like a mix of all the good parts of Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo’s and Carla Guevara Laforteza’s performances in 2019.)
AHEB also boasts a remarkable ensemble, as they help bring to life the entire world of the musical. While all are individually talented artists, a few who stand out include Liway Perez, whose range of characters—from Emman’s Batangueña mother, to an exasperated classmate, to a Toyang’s KTV “waitress,” to one of Hector’s frustrated girlfriends—is simply enjoyable to witness; and Jep Go, who plays ROTC squad leader Andre Antonio, delivers one of the most satisfying vocal performances in an ironically beautiful breakup duet with Joy. Then there’s Abi Sulit in a short ’90s montage, who hams up the nostalgia as she recreates the iconic “Goodbye Carlo” hotdog commercial.
But the true magic of theater is that it is an ever-evolving art. A show is never totally complete; it changes and evolves constantly as the shows go on, or even as they keep rerunning the play year after year. And while there is much to enjoy in the 2023 version of AHEB, a few things could have made it even more emotionally satisfying.
My main gripe is that I feel it is a shame that the sympathy Ligaya is able to draw out from the audience as she approaches and gets to know her late mother’s old friends doesn’t get a proper follow-through from the older counterparts.
While present-day Hector (Gian Magdangal) delivered a more decisive “babawi kami sa mga nagawa namin sa mama mo, at sa’yo,” this time around, it would’ve wrenched my heart a little more to see present-day Hector, Emman, and Anthony making true of their promise to take care of Ligaya in Joy’s stead.
The funeral scene would’ve been a perfect moment for the men to even just subtly show their care for the child—a small act of comfort in the moment of grieving would’ve sufficed. (I also distinctly remember that in 2019, this scene involved the three men hugging—reconciling—as they pay their last respects to Joy. It would’ve been nice to see that reprised this year.) Instead, it felt underwhelming—salvaged only by Magdangal’s flawless money note in the musical’s namesake song.
Nevertheless, the production as a whole delivers as a piece of theater that can truly grip its audience. With a story that is easy to follow, relatable characters, and music that will linger with you even after the curtains close, it’s no surprise that AHEB continues to draw in audiences, even after the successful (free) livestreams during the pandemic.
Many online-turned-live audiences claim to have enjoyed it even better this time around, too—proof, I suppose, of the truly irreplaceable palpable energy of live theater. So if you (or hesitant would-be viewers) are still thinking about which show to use as a gateway into theater, let AHEB be the joyride in.
(Then you can go watch the rest of the amazing shows lined up for the rest of the year.)
“Ang Huling El Bimbo” runs every weekend until July 23 at the Newport Performing Arts Theater in Newport World Resorts. AHEB is written by Dingdong Novenario, directed by Dexter Santos, with dramaturgy by Floy Quintos. Musical direction by Myke Salomon, choreography by Stephen Viñas and Fritz Esase, and live band by the Manila Symphony Orchestra.