It’s easy to get “Cyrano de Bergerac” wrong. If you overstate its romance and its inherently ridiculous premise, this story of a cartoonishly long-nosed soldier helping a young cadet woo the woman they both love can come off as frivolous. To an extent, this is how I felt about the 2016 production of “Mula sa Buwan,” which still had a ways to go before justifying itself as an adaptation, despite (or due to) its efforts to draw our eye to its Filipino World War II-era setting.
Now, however (following another run in 2018), be it because of a change in venue, an overall tightened production, or a timelier return to stage, this “Mula sa Buwan” not only feels like the closest-to-optimal version of director/playwright Pat Valera’s script (also based on Soc Rodrigo’s Filipino translation), it also successfully builds on Edmond Rostand’s foundations and arrives at emotional places far more meaningful and universal.
Where 2016’s “Mula sa Buwan” seemed to revel in the relative novelty of its time period, this 2022 version uses war to emphasize motifs of childhood innocence, the freedom of language and art, and even queerness—all things that are threatened by war and the forced participation of young people in war. Softening the musical’s historical context is a gamble that pays off well; the tragedy of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines is kept intact, but it now becomes much easier to see these characters delivering an urgent message to our present age of diverse identities and controversial nationalist policies.
About young people
This musical used to be about soldiers, but now it becomes much clearer that it’s about young people who would rather do anything than fight.
To achieve this, “Mula sa Buwan” creates a simple yet effective contrast between its two acts. The first has all the lightness of a classic (and distinctly Filipino) comedy, care of Bonsai Cielo’s colorful costumes, JM Cabling’s loose choreography, and truly wondrous lighting design from Meliton Roxas. There is a tangible depth to the physical space now, thanks to Ohm David’s sets, appropriately scaled to the Samsung Performing Arts Theater’s cavernous stage, allowing for several layers of feeling to coexist. (Though it should be pointed out that several structures wobble noticeably while in use, which certainly doesn’t inspire complete confidence in the safety of the performers.)
When the horror of war finally arrives by the intermission, “Mula sa Buwan” convincingly replaces all this color and vibrancy with starker images and more abstract storytelling devices. Valera (along with assistant director Mikko Angeles) manages this potentially unwieldy tonal whiplash by way of smart character writing and relatively toned-down performances that keep the emotional core steady.
Christian (Markki Stroem) is a pretty thankless role, performed as a clueless buffoon through and through, although his climactic realization of the truth is played with surprisingly subdued acceptance. Gab Pangilinan’s Roxane, on the other hand, is given perhaps the greatest glow-up. Cyrano’s love interest can easily be reduced to a shallow, reckless fool, but Valera and Pangilinan define her as a woman who knows exactly what she wants and defiantly refuses to let go of her childhood ambitions.
And Myke Salomon’s choice to approach Cyrano as more of a straight-laced character (rather than typically boisterous and arrogant) eventually pays off, as Cyrano’s final monologue rings more sincere and indomitably optimistic, rather than pitiful and pathetic.
The optimism of this current incarnation of “Mula sa Buwan” is kept alive in Valera’s and William Elvin Manzano’s original score (with musical direction by Salomon). If in the past the show’s music could occasionally come off cloying, here the moments of soaring emotion are earned and properly built up to. And once the sound design levels out after a rough first half hour of overlapping chatter, every word has crystal-clear intent.
Seed of hope
In this “Mula sa Buwan,” Cyrano’s speeches about the moon are no longer ramblings about tragic, unrealized dreams, but a seed of hope that the kind of future he and his fellow theater performers sought is still worth reaching for.
It’s a rallying cry not only for young people who may be feeling uncertain about their prospects during a pandemic, but clearly also for the local theater industry itself and its continuing fight to prove that it can never be kept down for long.
“Mula sa Buwan” runs until Sept. 11 at the Samsung Performing Arts Theater. —Ed.