The sentiment that drives the Philippine Educational Theater Association’s (Peta) full production of “Walang Aray”—itself a comedic adaptation of Severino Reyes’ 19th-century zarzuela “Walang Sugat”—is a triumphant one.
From its title to its celebratory tone, the production proudly announces itself as Peta’s return to live theater unscathed, emphasizing that nothing can replace the experience of laughing, cheering, and emotionally engaging with a play or a musical being performed in the same room. As entertainment, and especially as a showcase for Vince Lim’s dazzling score, “Walang Aray” succeeds with ease. But those hoping for a more urgent portrayal of Filipino revolutionaries battling an oppressive regime will find this story muted by all the festivities.
This emphasis on entertainment value over historical education isn’t necessarily a bad thing in this case, especially if “Walang Aray’s” mission is to help bring audiences back to Peta, which has otherwise been admirably outspoken in its political stances. There is a certain pleasure in hearing current Filipino slang in the modern vernacular (excessive anachronisms be damned), thanks either to Rody Vera’s fast-paced script or the cast’s ability to improvise on the fly. The show’s casual language and many contemporary references go a long way to remind any reluctant members of the audience that live theater doesn’t have to be an exclusive, upper-crust art form.
However, the thing that truly crosses all boundaries here is Vince Lim’s music—an infectious blend of radio pop and sweeping theatrical compositions that is both elegantly melodic and unabashedly emotional. There are comic songs as well, most notably those performed by Bene Manaois and Carlon Josol Matobato, who both play their broad character types with an effective, impish charm.
But these numbers are ultimately bonus treats in service of the main attraction: the handful of stunning, powerfully romantic ballads from the characters of Julia and Tenyong. Fans of the young performers at ABS-CBN’s talent agency Star Magic will have the opportunity to see those roles filled by KD Estrada and Alexa Ilacad; Peta’s Marynor Madamesila and Gio Gahol (who also choreographs the show) star on other dates.
This writer, however, got to watch Peta’s Shaira Opsimar and Jon Abella, who are both vocally magnificent, lending a real passion to Lim’s score through the sheer force of their technical skill. The strait-laced personality of Tenyong (who also disappears from stage for long stretches of the second act) makes for a somewhat thankless role, and Abella isn’t always able to bring the fire that the character would benefit from in between his beautifully performed numbers.
But Opsimar is a supernova, so present in every moment and making even Julia’s exaggeratedly genteel comic twangs come off like precise defense mechanisms. And during the actual songs, Opsimar brings to the show a full range of intense romance and heartache, taking it right to the edge of what it ought to be.
Outside of these performances, however, this production of “Walang Aray” isn’t able to communicate all of its ambitions just yet. Ian Segarra explains in his director’s notes the decision to have stage hands and costume changes be fully visible under the house lights, as a tribute to background workers—an admirable choice that also unfortunately makes scene transitions visually messy. Audience members in the balcony may get a better understanding of how the characters are meant to flow around the stage, but those in the orchestra might have to struggle through masses of bodies crowding different areas and frequently obscuring vital information.
Moreover, “Walang Aray’s” drama threatens to be overshadowed by the show’s instinct to do something funny every time an opportunity presents itself. That the show is meant to poke fun at the zarzuela isn’t an ironclad justification for jokes that don’t land—which only suggests that there may be a need to space them out, or to pick and choose the ones that actually strengthen certain moments instead of simply interrupting them.
As of the moment, this story of two lovers and a revolutionary love of country still feels more like a remnant of the past and not something that’s more meaningful now more than ever.
Again, the show’s celebratory tone is understandable, and still makes “Walang Aray” an enjoyable musical spectacle. But it’ll be exciting to see how Peta continues trying to bridge the show’s joy with its urgency, instead of simply pushing one of them to the background.
“Walang Aray” runs until March 5, and from April 14 to May 14 at the Peta Theater Center.