Photographs by Carlo Ambrosio Lina, c/o sawakas.com.
A review of “Sa Wakas: A Pinoy Rock Musical,” a musical whose narrative wraps around the songs of Sugarfree, one of the most popular pop-rock bands of the early noughties.
A muscial directed by Andrei Pamintuan
April 28, 8PM screening.
Starring: Fred Lo, Laura Cabochan, Justine Peña
The latest attempt to bridge the worlds of musical theater and pop music is Culture Shock Productions’ Sa Wakas: A Pinoy Rock Musical. The play focuses on the thorny nature of relationships and the bittersweet nature of hindsight, prompting comparisons with Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, with its story about a theater composer-turned-Hollywood sellout.
The play is a contemporary story about the relationship between Topper (Fred Lo), a professional photographer, and his fiancée, Lexi (Laura Cabochan) a neurosurgeon. Somewhere along the way Topper falls in love with Gabbi (Justine Peña), a features magazine editor who forces him to question his engagement and what he wants from life.
The play goes in reverse, beginning at the end (hence the play’s title), in the aftermath of Topper’s infidelity. We first find him attempting to reconnect with Lexi while he cleans out their shared apartment. Early on in the act, we get the idea that Topper is an idiot for jeopardizing his chances with a potential trophy wife: Gabbi seems like a non-committal but fun pretty young thing, while Lexi is the loyal girlfriend brimming with compassion and warmth.
“Minsan kasi ang sarap lang malito. The idea of being in between and not choosing makes perfect sense,” says Topper in a supposed moment of clarity. Gabbi retorts that his indecision is decidedly painful. “Ano ba tayo, nakiki-uso? Teleserye, kabit movie?” she says, but adds cuttingly, “Mas pipiliin ko nang masaktan nang mapait pero panandalian lamang, kaysa araw-araw akong nagdurusa.”
Viewers might spend the act juggling, adjusting to its backwards progression while grasping how the songs articulate the characters’ emotions. While the performances like “Burnout” and “Telepono” are heart-wrenching at best, other points may be a bit repetitive after the viewer is already familiar with the dynamics of the love triangle.
You have to actively listen to fill in the gaps between scenes. There are hints in the dialogue and in the characters’ clothes or accessories. For example, Topper’s outfit never changes to signify that time isn’t moving in the normal sense, and spotting other markers can be rewarding as you can better sort things out in your mind.
There’s no prior development to why the trio are who they are. Some people prefer the conventional character development progression, but in the greater scheme of things I’d like to think it’s a welcome effect of the play’s non-linearity: Sometimes a person’s character is a product of circumstance, and grasping it lies in being aware of the forces influencing both the subject and the beholder. This becomes clearer in the second act (the more engaging of the two) when the play goes into the back-story, and the change of context turns what you know about the characters on its head.
Part two deals with how Topper first met Gabbi, interwoven with how the cracks begin to show in his five-year relationship with Lexi. “All you do is sit around all day, and point, and shoot!” says Lexi, a jest that struck a sour chord with her boyfriend. It’s then easier to imagine Topper’s attraction to Gabbi, someone more familiar with the creative industry and appreciates his craft. Navigating complex emotions is never easy, especially when you empathize with each character’s earnest desire to find true love as embodied in “Bawat Daan,” the poignant new song that Sugarfree frontman Ebe Dancel penned exclusively for the musical: “Bawat kanan at kaliwa, kanluran man o hilaga / Ang bawat daan ko ay patungo pabalik sa’yo.”
Does this redeem Topper the two-timer? Probably not. Does this make him less of a jerk? We’re not sure. Can we call Gabbi a homewrecker? Maybe, but not quite. And we’re never sure if Lexi wants to give the relationship one more try, or if she should do so anyway. Don’t be surprised if after the play, you find yourselves digging up personal histories while trying to answer these questions with your friends.
Jukebox musicals are a tricky affair: There’s a balance between finding songs that feel organic to the story and making sure that the artists’ hit songs are well-represented (Charissa Ann Pammit’s production markets Sugarfree as the clear star of the show). Andrei Pamintuan and Marian Abuan have a no-frills script and have a knack for tiny gestures onstage that to the observant eye become charged with meaning. Noteworthy as well is Pamintuan’s direction with the minimalist set, including the simultaneous use of photo slides to aid the play’s show-and-tell dynamic.
Some double entendres are obvious—you just know the hit single “Hari ng Sablay” had to be used. But at times it’s quite strong, such as in Topper and Gabbi’s rendition of “Kwentuhan” where they establish their connection on a rooftop overlooking the Makati skyline: “Kwentuhan lang, wala namang masama / Kung usap lang dahil gusto kitang makilala’t makasama.” That’s the path reminiscing on a failed relationship sometimes takes us, in the same way it’s almost painful to hear Topper gush about Lexi when he says, “Doktora, maganda na, Chinese pa. Ang swerte ko naman.”
Musical director Ejay Yatco deserves props for adapting the song material into the style of musical theatre while keeping the originals’ rock tones and emotional warmth. Special mention goes to his adaptation of “Wala,” which adds a heightened edginess and tension when it comes out in the first act.
Lo is an able singer but struggles with some high notes as Dancel sings in a high register. He comes short of convincing in some of Topper’s sadder scenes, but makes up for it with a touching, vulnerable treatment of “Tulog Na.” Peña is a versatile talent who does justice to the range of emotions Gabbi is put through in the play. Same goes to Cabochan, whom I felt the sudden urge to hug at various points in the play.
Finally, Abi Sulit, Hans Dimayuga, Mikou David, and Cassie Manalastas do an admirable job as the play’s Greek chorus-slash-stage hands. Dimayuga also injects a welcome dose of candor in his “Dear Kuya” duet, standing in as Topper’s OFW big brother.
Plot-wise, Sa Wakas does nothing new. Some math and previous movie examples can give you the permutations on how love triangles are resolved (that’s three basic scenarios if we keep it heterosexual). But the format of working backwards means everything to the play as it trades the audience’s suspense for dramatic irony. We already know how it ends, but the amazement at how it all went wrong lingers on.
So if you’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing a break-up before watching this, brace yourself. Within two and a half hours you’ll relive the darker times you promised would never happen, the times you should have seen it coming, and all the moments when you didn’t think you could be happier. And just like the good old days of the last decade, Sugarfree will be there to hold your hand every step of the way.