It’s not that odd for “Maynila, Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” to be adapted into a large-scale musical. Musicals have often dug deep into socially relevant stories to great success. Take, for example, “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” and “Ragtime.”
The novel by Edgardo Reyes, adapted into a classic film by Lino Brocka, offers an unfiltered working-class view of the world. It tells the story of a young man from the province who moves to Manila in the 1970s to look for his fiance and suffers the indignities that fall to the naive and innocent in the oppressive systems of the big city.
This adaptation produced by The Grand Leisure Corporation and directed by Joel Lamangan with music by Von De Guzman, bristles with the vigor and intensity of the original source material.
The stage is filled with an ensemble of over 40 players, giving life to Martial Law-era Manila and truly making the production feel epic. The songs are gorgeous, the choreography by Douglas Nierras is daring and makes full use of the space and the ensemble (except for a few numbers), and the performances are strong.
As a whole, “Maynila, Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag The Musical” is a powerful production about the perils of living in the big city and dramatizes the struggles of the impoverished in trying to survive. Despite its heavy themes, it still manages to inject humor and some level of joy through its story, balancing out what could be something very heavy-handed.
Again, I have to give praise to Von de Guzman’s music as the songs are melodious and moving. This musical is almost sung-through, with very few spoken parts, and with actors like Arman Ferrer (playing the lead character Julio), Shiela Valderrama-Martinez (playing Ligaya), and Aicelle Santos (playing Perla), who can really push the narrative while singing beautifully, the show has so much to lean on.
All the elements are there, but I still felt a little distant from the work. I was more impressed by the individual elements — the choreography, the performances, the songs — but I had a hard time falling into the story.
One of the reasons for this is because the Kia Theater is so huge that it is perfect for the large ensemble numbers, when everyone is on stage. They are fantastic and the energy reverberates through to the end of the hall. But when the play becomes contained and intimate, during solos and duets, the actors are confined into their set spaces on stage.
The energy from their magnificent singing is held down by their inability to leave their spot. These are weak spots in the play and they should have been able to make use of the whole stage. It’s as if they were meant to stay in the parts of the stage that represented their location, but I feel that if a song starts, they should be able to make use of the whole space to let that energy out.
Another challenge I had with the piece is that the story begins with Julio arriving in Manila looking for his beloved, Ligaya, but she only appears once in Act I. The rest of the act becomes a look into the lives of the people Julio works with and lays down the foundation of the realism of what it’s like to live in the city.
The hero’s story, Julio looking for Ligaya, does not progress while a bigger story with interesting characters is unfolding in the whole of Act I. I feel like the play did not prepare me for this.
I feel like the city of Manila should have been the focus at the start and Julio’s story comes in second because his narrative only really starts to develop on Act II and it makes Act I feel extraneous, even though it’s important and part of the show’s theme.
I feel there is a structural issue here that could still be looked into.
But that’s just nitpicking on my part because the show is very strong, with two incredible numbers in Act One, including the finale, and very strong numbers in Act II.
Despite its ’70s setting, “Maynila sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag” still hits hard today, the socially relevant themes still ring true in our current time. The production captures the epic scope of the source material and really impresses the feel of a city trying desperately to survive under such a harsh and abusive environment.