Gift-giving is an art, one that the most perceptive and thoughtful of people excel in. It takes being attentive to your intended recipient’s likes, interests, and needs to be able to formulate a gift idea that would be most appreciated by or useful for them. A gift also becomes even more special if it’s made with one’s own hands, because then it becomes more than just an object, it is also a testament of time, effort, and talent being offered to the receiver.
We see as much in “Sandosenang Sapatos,” as Susie, from whom the story revolves, sings: “Ang tunay na regalo’y nagpapasaya sa taong mahal mo. Pinag-iipunan, o pinagsusumikapan, iyong binabalot sa buong pagmamahal.”
This musical is adapted from the Palanca Award-winning children’s story of the same name by doctor and author Luis Gatmaitan, M.D. The Tanghalang Pilipino musical, written by Layeta Bucoy, set to music by Noel Cabangon and Joed Balsamo, and directed by Jonathan Tadiaoan explores this theme of giving gifts, highlighting the most special one of all: unconditional love.
“Sandosenang Sapatos,” in its musical form, follows a young girl named Susie (Felicity Kyle Napuli), born to a loving and supportive family comprised of a shoemaker father (Floyd Tena), a seamstress mother (Tex Ordoñez De Leon), and a budding painter older sister (Mica Fajardo). However, in a seemingly cruel twist, she is revealed to have been born without feet, thus unable to wear her father’s creations, nor fulfill his dream of having a ballerina for a daughter.
The musical hinges on this conflict. Susie desperately wants to achieve her father’s dream, and longs to wear his beautifully crafted shoes the way her Ate Karina and Nanay are able to. So much so, that she has vivid dreams of shoes, and that every year, she is visited by the Diwata ng Sapatos (Marynor Madamesila), who, in the dream world, gifts her not just with a new pair of shoes, but a pair of feet with which to wear them, too.
Reality hits (and hurts) though, as Tatay falls ill and soon passes away, with Susie unable to fulfill his dream. Or at least what she thinks his dream for her is.
The musical, as does the original story, ties up beautifully with Karina discovering a dozen pairs of shoes left behind by Tatay, all dedicated to Susie. It’s a heartwarming discovery, and a very tear-inducing realization, when we, together with Susie, piece together that the shoes created by Tatay are the very same shoes that have appeared in her dreams. It speaks of true and deep love, a priceless gift that transcends whatever obstacle or limit.
After witnessing such a story, delivered so beautifully and strongly by its talented cast, viewers would surely leave the theater with tear-stained cheeks and a heart overflowing with belief in the power of a parent’s love. I know I did.
Napuli’s emotive vocals takes the audience through dreamscape highs and heartbreaking lows, while Fajardo delivers a very comforting and warm portrayal of an older sister (a portrayal that is true even to the book version of Ate Karina). Then Tena, whose mere appearance on stage at the right moments are enough to trigger tears.
But once the tears are wiped and sobs are hushed, and we think back to Susie who dreams of becoming a ballerina, several questions arise.
This musical version, though cathartic and heartfelt, gets a little hiccup in its storytelling if you sit and think about it. While Susie does get what she wants in the end—the shoes she’s dreamed of wearing all her (still young) life, given to her by her father not just in a dream, but in reality, too—it’s still Tatay who makes the dream come true. This is not wrong per se, just confusing if you think about the musical’s conflict as “Susie is unable to become a ballerina. What does she do about it? How does she resolve it?” She doesn’t; it’s the Diwata, who visits her dreams, and Tatay, who made and kept aside shoes for her every year, who makes her dream of becoming a “ballerina” (at least with ballet flats) true.
On that note, it also seems like Susie has a misplaced idea about what makes a truly meaningful gift. She seems very fixated on the idea that only by becoming a ballerina will she make her father truly happy, despite her family being very loving and supportive of her innate talents. One of the most gut-wrenching moments in the musical, in fact, is when Tatay gives Susie a laptop as a present—an upgrade from her notebook and pencil, so she can further pursue her talent in writing. Nanay says he could’ve instead used the money to buy medicine, but Tatay insists on spending it for Susie. The scene is one brief but powerful display of a parent’s unconditional love, of which the musical is rich.
Susie is upset though. She would have rather been given shoes. It makes one wonder why she can’t seem to feel loved? In a chunk of the musical, we hear her lament over how she is only loved in dreams because in dreams she gets to have shoes. Although her family acknowledges and even celebrates her talent in writing, we don’t see her truly grasp that it’s okay if writing is the gift she can offer (the same way Karina offers her talent in painting, and Nanay her skill in clothesmaking). She doesn’t seem to acknowledge that writing can bring others joy, the same way painting or shoemaking can.
In one of Napuli’s strongest solos, Susie sings: “Ano’ng silbi ng pagsulat, kung sarili lamang ang siyang lumiligaya? Kung wala itong maaaring handugan, walang ibang nagpapasaya?”
Susie is young. Though she’s won contests and has seen how happy her family is when she wins these contests (Tatay being the proudest, according to Karina and Nanay), she has yet to realize the potential of writing, of the written word, in bringing joy or comfort to more people directly. The way stories or poetry or songs or plays are all born from a writer’s hand, and have the power to affect people. She’s young and hasn’t put her work out there and hasn’t seen what effect her words could have. Unlike shoes that you can immediately and visibly see the joy it brings to its recipient. That’s why she feels like writing is a very solitary, perhaps even selfish endeavor.
Perhaps it is also Susie’s youth (and disability?) that makes her family want to constantly protect and shield her—we see in the musical how she is constantly left in the safety of her room and her wheelchair even if she wants to rush out to check on Tatay, or even how Tatay has probably shielded her from potential pressure or disappointment by hiding the shoes he has made for her (perhaps, he had intended to present them when she is much older). But such coddling also downplays Susie’s agency. Perhaps this is the deeper impetus for her desire to have feet. Perhaps here, being able to walk, symbolizes her freedom to take part in a bigger world, too, and that’s the cause of her discontent.
This doesn’t seem to be a problem in the book version of the story. In fact, the original story is told from Karina’s point of view, and it provides us with even more insight into the family. In the book, we see there is a history and reason why Susie is being shielded from the outside world’s prejudice. The musical leaves most of this to subtext.
In the book, we also see that Susie is a generally more positive child. Though she still dreams of shoes, she seems to have a better grasp of what she is capable of. She even remarks, “Ate, paglaki ko, susulat ako ng mga kuwento tungkol sa mga sapatos na napapanaginipan ko. Ikaw ang magdo-drowing, ha?”
That thread would have struck a stronger chord. How beautiful is that, for Susie to translate her dreams (and be inspired by Tatay’s gifts) using the talent she has?
Nevertheless, what Tanghalang Pilipino has proven in this restaging of “Sandosenang Sapatos” is that these are themes that can resonate with audiences of all ages. Learning to appreciate and make use of the talents we have, the same way each member of Susie’s family has; and being reminded that the most meaningful and most powerful gift of all will still be love, are beautiful takeaways from this musical.
Backed by beautifully written music, and set amidst a stunning stage, it’s still a wonderful gift of a story to witness.
Tanghalang Pilipino’s “Sandosenang Sapatos” is on a regional run from Dec. 15 to 16 at the Jagna Cultural Center in Jagna, Bohol. It will then be staged at the Assumpta Theater, Assumption Antipolo on Jan. 22 and 24, 2024.