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‘Bar Boys’ original musical: Remarkable beyond reasonable doubt

‘Bar Boys’ original musical: Remarkable beyond reasonable doubt

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  • Although adapted from a 2017 Cinemalaya film of the same title, “Bar Boys” stands on its own with a balanced production that proves to be one of the best shows running this season
bar boys musical

We’re seeing a trend of movies being turned into musicals lately, but more than just being trendy, “Bar Boys: A New Musical” is timely. 

Seeing that, in recent history, we’ve had countless cases of extrajudicial killings, warrantless arrests, election fraud, and now even an ousted dictator’s son is in the highest office, while on the news, we might’ve seen questionable laws being proposed, important ones being left to stagnate, human rights being trampled on, and sovereign territory put in question.

All of this is disheartening for sure, and for many of us who recently might’ve found ourselves inspired to take a stand, it’s given us quite a beating again. The spark of love for the country that was reignited was doused. It’s pushed many of us to become jaded. It’s made many of us believe that we’ve failed—and that the country, too, has failed us.

It is this exact context that has birthed the production of “Bar Boys: A New Musical,” an adaptation of the 2017 Cinemalaya film. 

But this is not just a straightforward adaptation. Under Pat Valera’s pen, the story of four friends going through their law school journey has transformed and evolved, made to fit and capture the context and sentiment of the present, of 2024. Myke Salomon’s music—this is the first musical he has composed himself—also reflects this present-day setting.

This writer is no stranger to enjoying works in the legal genre (of course I loved “Legally Blonde,” enjoyed the thrill of “How to Get Away with Murder,” got kilig over “Extraordinary Attorney Woo,” and obsessively played all the “Ace Attorney” games). But “Bar Boys: A New Musical” is on a level completely its own. It hits different, precisely because it is so uniquely ours.

bar boys musical
“Bar Boys” follows the stories of Erik (Benedix Ramos), Torran (Jerom Canlas), Chris (Alex Diaz), and Josh (Omar Uddin). Photo by Kyle Venturillo.

“Bar Boys: A New Musical” follows four young men—Erik, Chris, Torran, and Josh—as they cross the bridge (or the line, as they say in the show) towards full-fledged adulthood, learning about life, society, and themselves as they pore over the country’s laws. This two-hour-and-a-half musical is so deeply grounded in truth, even if the law school experience is, in theory, unique. “Bar Boys” shows us very real experiences of people in society, from the humble working class to struggling students and even the (oft powerful, terrifying, maybe even despicable) upper one percent—and, though a chunk of the scenes do involve the classroom—the messages and themes “Bar Boys” aims to impart don’t come across preachy or lecture-like.

It’s earnest, it’s heartfelt, and it’s inspiring.

“Bar Boys” is also quite funny, thanks to the myriad characters we witness throughout the law school journey. Quirky professors, struggling classmates, and true-to-life scenes never fail to elicit laughs from the audience—only because of how real it is, and, to the cast’s credit, not because they’re portrayed as caricatures. At any given show, you’ll likely be seated with a few lawyers or law students, and their very palpable reactions are proof of the show’s accuracy.

You don’t have to have dipped your toes into the legal profession to enjoy or relate to it though. There’s a universality to the themes shown in the musical. The number “May Singil Ang Pangarap,” for example, puts to words the reality many of us may have had to (or continue to) face: The path towards achieving our dreams or our wants isn’t easy, not just for the actual challenges or effort you have to put in, but also because the way towards it isn’t cheap.

For most Filipinos, aiming for a dream—be it a career like a lawyer or even something more tangible like a house—means having to put in months, maybe even years, of hard work to earn enough money to cover the costs. For young Filipinos who aspire to become professionals, there’s always the struggle between wanting to achieve the dream you set for yourself and also considering the need to start earning your own money to help the family with expenses.

bar boys musical
Erik (Benedix Ramos) and Paping (Juliene Mendoza). Photo by Kris Rocha

Such was the situation of Erik—coming from humble roots, he worried his father might not be able to afford to send him to law school, and had thus resigned himself to forgo further education. But it is Paping who insists, and it’s in this quiet but touching moment that many find themselves moved to tears. Never mind our affinity for the underdog, it’s always just beautiful to witness a parent’s love, always proving no obstacle is too great if it means giving their children the world. It is also this scene that gets us attached to Paping and Erik and makes us easily root for them and their fight for justice as the story progresses.

But each “bar boy” (so to speak) has their own journeys explored within the musical, too. The boys, played by Benedix Ramos (Erik), Alex Diaz (Chris), Jerom Canlas (Torran), and Omar Uddin (Josh), had such great chemistry with each other, easily demonstrating the energy and dynamic of an all-male barkada. They balance each other out well. No one actor seems to outshine or upstage the other in their scenes together but each one can also hold his own in their individual arcs. What’s impressive with Valera’s book is that it doesn’t feel dragging or disjointed as the characters’ own arcs flow into each other so well.

It also helps that each boy’s personal arcs align with universal experiences of the youth—in and out of law school. Pressure in following after parents’ footsteps, making them proud—or in some cases, proving them wrong. Discovering a new side of themselves and grappling with accepting and expressing their identities. And even the realization that some dreams change and, with it, the challenge of facing a new path.

“Bar Boys” is also a reckoning with the real “bosses” of life: injustice, corruption, inequality. There is no “final” boss. It goes on, and on, and on, because that’s life. But this isn’t meant to dishearten or discourage. Instead, it’s a reminder and a challenge that as long as we live, we must strive to do better and be better than yesterday.

bar boys musical
Glimpses of life in law school. Photo by Kris Rocha

“Bar Boys” shows us both sides of the case—the good lawyers and the bad. But ultimately it ends by highlighting the good. Lawyers do get a bad rap most of the time. But lawyers are also responsible for much of the good. It ends with us wanting to believe in this positive force. Ultimately it’s also a reminder: Hindi kailangang magpalamon sa sistema para lang mabuhay.

The cast and creatives were a joy to witness

To be able to strike that delicate balance between being truthful enough to be relatable, dramatic enough to be moving, and funny and spectacular enough to entertain is no easy feat, and it’s something that only one in a few shows can do every so often.

There is depth even with a relatively more direct message (contrary to the stereotype of lawyers muddling discussions in legalese!). The impact of what the production is trying to say isn’t something that needs to be digested long after the show. Not to say that it’s dumbed down because, quite the contrary, it is clearly conveyed. No mental gymnastics needed to get the point.

There’s great synergy and passion evident in the cast and creatives—understandable, with the material they are given to work with. 

In terms of the cast, the professors skillfully played by Kakki Teodoro and Carlon Matobato captured such a breadth of quirks and personalities, which added much color to the vignettes of law school classroom scenes. Meanwhile, Topper Fabregas as Atty. Victor Cruz was charismatic, making the character both respectable and likable.

Especially noteworthy is Sheila Francisco as Justice Hernandez. Every time she was on stage, she carried an air of wisdom and authority—commanding respect but not fear, not just from the characters, but also from the perspective of an audience member. Unlike some of the (terror!) profs, Francisco’s Justice Hernandez was lovable because she knew exactly when to be strict and when to be empathetic.

bar boys musical
Topper Fabregas as Atty. Victor Cruz. Photo by Kris Rocha
bar boys musical
Sheila Francisco as Justice Hernandez. Photo by Jaypee Maristaza

Fabregas’ and Francisco’s characters were both very admirable in how they were firm when they needed to be but also nurturing and supportive of the boys outside the classroom setting. You could see how it was with their help that the boys also learned and grew, not just as lawyers, but also as adults. (It is a dream to be surrounded by mentors like them!)

The three parents in the show also capture very different shades of love and humanity. On the darker end of the scale is Nor Domingo’s Atty. Maurice Carlson, who was menacing and intimidating right from the very moment he appeared at the end of Act 1. Totally a big boss moment. Meanwhile, Gimbey Dela Cruz playing Torran’s mother Boss Mama is the figure of strong woman, tough love, but also tender and supportive motherly care, especially in Torran’s coming out moment.

It is Juliene Mendoza’s Paping that is most endearing, with his earnest support of his son Erik, his sweet recollections, down to his own fight for justice. It’s very well because of Paping that we also come to root for Erik (although Ramos’ own charm is also a factor, for sure).

These characters were also all able to shine thanks to the music and choreography going hand in hand with the storytelling. Salomon’s compositions for this musical were inspired, and the inclusion of video game-like music, ringtones, and the like leveled up the show’s sound, complementing the musical’s motifs. The dynamic choreography by Jomelle Era also added to how visually engaging the show is.

bar boys musical
“Bar Boys: A New Musical” Photo by Kyle Venturillo

With such well-balanced elements, from book to music, acting to choreography, down to the set, props, and projections, Barefoot Theatre Collaborative has made a case for work that is inspiring, impressive, and satisfying, especially for something that is new, original, and staged for the first time.

It’s one of the new shows that definitely deserves a rewatch. And if there’s anything this production should be guilty of, it’s simply that this run is too short.

“Bar Boys: A New Musical” runs until May 19 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Black Box Theater, Circuit Makati. Based on the film by Kip Oebanda, with book, lyrics, and direction by Pat Valera, music and lyrics by Myke Salomon, co-directed by Mikko Angeles. Movement design by Jomelle Era, set design by Ohm David, lighting design by Meliton Roxas, Jr., costume design by Tata Tuviera, video projection design by Bene Manaois. Starring Alex Diaz, Benedix Ramos, Jerom Canlas, Omar Uddin, Sheila Francisco, Juliene Mendoza, Nor Domingo, Topper Fabregas, Kakki Teodoro, Carlon Matobato, Gimbey Dela Cruz, Diego Aranda, Edrei Tan, Ade Valenzona, Meg Ruiz, Anne Cortez, Uzziel Delamide, Jannah Baniasia, and Lorenz Martinez.

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