When you see a stage inspired by the Rubik’s Cube and a strange divider that carries tiny flags of Spain, Japan and the Philippines, you realize quickly enough that the play you’re about to see just might deliver on the promise of its title. After all, it is called Chuva Choo Choo, The Mr. Kupido Musicale (written and directed by George de Jesus, featuring the songs of Vehnee Saturno).
I’ve never laughed so hard in any play or musical in a very long time.
It would be easy to dismiss the laughter to be borne of the campiness and gayness that this production works with, given Nenita (Ross Pesigan) who is gay sidekick of the lead characters Dina (Joanna Ampil) and Darla (Morissette Amon), and given the fact that the two leads would end up working in a gay comedy bar, pretending to be cross-dressers.
It is of course a story that’s familiar. Yet, this is the thing you realize about adaptations: done well, with very succinct and specific references to local culture, as only we might know it, these adaptations become ours.
This narrative creates its own independence from whatever text it was adapted from because of perfect timing from a cast of a few, and a truly Pinoy sense of humor. The latter is the gift of Chuva Choo Choo, as it brings together everything from wit to puns, the campy to the absurd, all the time working with the self-deprecation that material like this requires.
Lest it is unclear: this was kabaduyan unhinged, unquestioned, unexpurgated, but also inexplicably brought to the point of extreme hilarity. Lest one missed it: there were the costumes and the headpieces, the stagehands who lived in the “cabinets” that the set provided (and who became macho dancers when needed), the choreography and blocking with kumot and dream weddings.
The intertext of music and comedy
This musical was the best way to handle the Saturno songs that remain familiar, which cut across English and Filipino, and across different generations. From ballads of courtship (i.e., Martin Nievera’s “Be My Lady,” Ariel Rivera’s “Sana Kahit Minsan,” Randy Santiago’s, “Para Sa ‘Yo”) to songs of undying love (Sarah Geronimo’s “Forever’s Not Enough,” Donna Cruz’s “Only Me And You”), from sad love songs (Ella Mae Saison’s “Someone’s Always Saying Goodbye” and “Til My Heartaches End,” Jessa Zaragoza’s “Bakit Pa?”) to serious songs about nation (“Isang Lahi”), from Chuva Choo Choo circa Jolina Magdangal as a Christmas tree to Mr. Kupido circa Rachel Alejandro as pa-cute teenstar. Chuva Choo Choo is a veritable songbook that will have you singing along to new arrangements of songs that you realize you still have memorized despite the years.
Obviously, the more familiar you are with these songs, the funnier this musical will be for you. After all, it is intertextuality that De Jesus works with. You hear any of the songs this musical uses from the Saturno songbook and you can’t help but go back to images of say, a young Donna Cruz, or a young Sarah Geronimo. You can’t help but see Ariel Rivera’s debonair swagger, or Randy Santiago’s shades.
Here though, those images are interwoven with really fantastic singing and deliberate—if not pulled-to-the-extreme—hamon acting, making the songs and the singing integral to the comedy. It helped of course that this whole cast seemed to have gotten into this mode on the weekend that I saw them, and were already totally into it, with nary a discomfort.
A cast of thousands!
Or just a cast of nine. But it was certainly enough to fill that stage with more characters than one can handle.
There were the two leading men who fit-the-bill of good looking and good singing that they will throw you back to the Pinoy balladeer circa 1990s. Zandro (Edward Benosa) and Tonton (Jojo Riguerra) did the self-conscious hamon acting, the looking to the kawalan, the ampogi-ko swagger to the point of comedy. There were a few missed opportunities for Riguerra, but one forgives him because . . . ampogi nga kase niya.
But it was an achievement in itself that these two men survived that stage that was wont to be swallowed alive by kabaklaan—and I do mean that with all love for the federasyon. Of the four on that stage—Lani (Ron Alfonso), Regine (Jay Marquez), Nenita (Ross Pesigan), and ZsaZsa (Juliene Mendoza)—the latter would keep that stage from falling apart with the sheer weight of bakla chatter and punchlines. ZsaZsa is the kind bakla we rarely see on stage, more controlled and kind, less noise and spectacle, and Mendoza was up for the challenge of becoming voice of reason. It was also the best I’ve seen him on stage.
And then there were the women here—all three of them—who played multiple roles.
Morissette’s return to the theater stage reveals how the years off it have allowed for that voice to grow stronger and more confident, as she’s lost the newbie shyness that she had circa Camp Rock. Whatever Morissette missed in terms of acting was balanced out by Ampil, who was a joy to watch on stage, as she dealt with this off-beat role with aplomb and irony that cut across everything from the look in her eyes to the uncertainty in her step. Ampil’s voice was also the one that would carry this production through its more difficult song numbers.
And then there was Via Antonio, who did seven (count that!) minor roles, each time doing a caricature that is so familiar it would elicit laughter even before she spoke. Antonio’s timing was perfect and dependable, her movements succinct and specific for each character she needed to play. She was the surprise star of this show.
But it was Saturno’s music that one leaves the theater with, and a week since, I’ve still got many of those songs on loop in my head.
And in my heart.
* * *
Chuva Choo Choo (The Mr. Kupido Musical) had a limited run in September 2015 and will be restaged in early 2016. It was written and directed by George de Jesus, with music by Vehnee Saturno, set design by Tuxqs Rutaquio, costumes by John Abul and Carlo Pagunaling, choreography by PJ Rebullida.