Much like the epic hero it is based on, the rock opera ballet “Rama, Hari” comes with a string of accolades and distinctions. First would probably be how this genre-defying piece of theater was created by five of the country’s National Artists. Back in 1979, when National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes came up with the idea to create “Rama, Hari,” none of the five collaborators were even conferred the title yet; I suppose we could say it was ahead of its time, for more reasons than one.
“Rama, Hari” is based on the Indian epic “Ramayana” translated for the stage by National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, set to music by National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab, with direction and choreography by Reyes. The rich world of the epic was recreated through the set and costumes of National Artist for Theater Design Salvador Bernal and made accessible to international audiences through an English translation by National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio.
The Indian epic’s 24,000 verses have been condensed into a two-act musical, performed by a tandem of singers and dancers—the singers, weaving themselves across the stage while dancers leap and bound around them, acting and rendering the musical’s two dozen or so song numbers. It’s a visual spectacle for sure, but backed by a full orchestra running the range from classical and kundiman to rock and Indian and Asian music, it becomes a feast for the ears, too.
More than 40 years since its inception, “Rama, Hari” returns to the stage, showcasing the best and brightest talents in theater, music, and dance today. The short theatrical engagement ran from Sept. 15 and 16 at the historic Metropolitan Theater, then from Sept. 22 to 24 at the newly built Samsung Performing Arts Theater.
A story and production of (quite literally) epic proportions such as this require a powerhouse of performers to give it justice, and in this, the “Rama, Hari” team, with Reyes and Cayabyab at the helm, definitely succeeded.
Arman Ferrer and Ronelson Yadao, the singer and dancer pair that portrayed Rama, both convincingly expressed the lead character’s strength and fortitude. Ferrer’s faultless and resounding vocals, with Yadao’s dignified movement and stance, create the lordly character that commands the stage.
Shiela Valderrama-Martinez and Monica Gana, on the other hand, portray the beautiful Sita, Rama’s wife and incarnation of the goddess Lakshmi. Valderrama-Martinez’s soaring vocals really capture the grace of Sita’s character, while Gana’s dance and expressions are so enchanting it would be hard to take your eyes off her whenever she’s on stage. Karylle Tatlonghari’s take on Sita is also noteworthy: At one point, as Sita sings her lament over being apart from Rama, Tatlonghari ends the song tearfully—the worry, pain, and longing evident in her voice.
But as much as we root for Rama and Sita, the demon sibling tandem of Ravana and Soorphanaka are so impressive they also deserve thunderous applause. Ravana, played Poppert Bernadas and Mathew San Jose, with Richardson Yadao and Tim Cabrera as their dancer counterparts, exudes menace and evil in their highlight number, “Buktot.” Bernadas’ powerful vocals, paired with the music and lyrics that veer away from the classical sounds and lean more into rock and more straightforward (even modern) language paint an aural contrast to the hero.
Raflesia Bravo and Miah Canton meanwhile lend their voice to Soorphanaka—and while technically the character is not one to be cheered for, you can’t help but enjoy every moment Soorphanaka is on stage. Bravo’s take is loudly provocative and flirtatious, which when paired with Ma. Celina Dofitas’ animated movements, make Soorphanaka even more of a delightfully campy character. It is also in Soorphanaka’s numbers that we get more of the playful, slang lyrics, providing yet another stark contrast to the sweet, if not melancholy, kundiman-like tunes attributed to Sita.
All this said, it’s also worth noting how beautiful the choreography is. Reyes’ deep understanding of dance as a vehicle for storytelling is on full display in “Rama, Hari” that whether you’re a long-time ballet patron or a first time viewer, watching the dancers do their graceful turns, sharp twists, and awe-inspiring leaps will give you a grasp of the scene, the personality of the characters, and will even add to the context being sung by their singer counterparts.
Setting the stage
The restored Metropolitan Theater would have been the perfect place to stage the return of the epic “Rama, Hari.” The Art Deco theater already sets the tone from the very moment you arrive: “This piece you are about to witness is one that’s rich in cultural significance,” it seems to say. The ornate interiors also lend itself well to the beautiful set by Bernal.
But for all its aesthetic, the Met falls short in acoustics. The full orchestra and a cast with some of the best and clearest vocals in the industry aren’t given enough justice; the mics in the theater do not allow audiences to fully appreciate the clarity of the lyrics—again a disservice, this time to Lumbera’s words. The performances at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater are better in this regard, as it’s easier to grasp the message of each song thanks to the better audio quality here.
“Rama, Hari” is set for a rerun in February 2024. Here’s hoping that this epic production will have more opportunities to be seen by more Filipinos—and that all the work that has been poured into it, both by its core creators of National Artists, and the new breed of talents today will be appreciated more fully.