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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Jan 2, 2018

Larawan, The Movie, A Review: The Original Stage Version As A Straight Play Remains To Be The Most Effective For Us

WE GREW UP loving musicals. Our dad and a spinster aunt would often take us to musicals like “Oklahoma”, “Brigadoon”, “Showboat”, “The King and I”, “South Pacific” and our all time favorite, “Singin’ in the Rain”. These films produced classic hit songs like “Oh What a Beautiful Morning”, “Almost Like Being in Love”, “Old Man River”, “Make Believe”, “Getting to Know You”, “Some Enchanted Evening” and the title song from “Singing’ in the Rain”.

As a teener, we were blown away by “West Side Story” (‘Somewhere’, ‘Tonight’, ‘Maria’), “My Fair Lady” (‘On the Street Where You Live’, ‘I Could’ve Danced All Night’,

‘The Rain in Spain’, “Oliver” (‘Where is Love’, ‘As Long As He Needs Me’), “Gypsy” (‘Let Me Entertain You’, ‘Everything’s Coming Up Roses’ - we so loved Rosalind Russell and Nathalie Wood in this film.)

When we started working, the best musicals are “The Sound of Music” (so many hit songs: ‘Do Re Mi’, ‘Climb Every Mountain’, ‘So Long Farewell’, ‘My Favorite Things’, ‘Eidelweiss’), “Jesus Christ Superstar” (‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’), “Camelot” (“If Ever I Would Leave You”, “How to Handle a Woman”, “I Loved You Once in Silence”, “The Lusty Month of May”), “Hello Dolly” (‘Before the Parade Passes By’, ‘It Only Takes a Moment’, the title song), “Cabaret” (‘Maybe This Time’, ‘Money Money’, the title song), “Evita” (“Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”, “Another Suitcase in Another Hall”, “You Must Love Me’, Madonna was snubbed but we like her).

Among the more recent ones, we were enthralled by “Phantom of the Opera” (‘Music of the Night’, ‘All I Ask of You’, the title song), “Chicago” (“All that Jazz”), “Dreamgirls” (“And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going”, “One Night Only”, “I’m Changing”), and “Les Miserables” (‘I Dreamed a Dream’, ‘On My Own’, ‘Stars’, ‘At the End of the Day’, ‘One Day More’.)

Admittedly, it’s difficult to do a musical and Tom Cruise should know this that after doing the dismal flop that was “Rock of Ages”. Previous attempts to do a film version of a hit local musical was not successful, like “Sinta”, Onofre Pagsanghan’s local adaptation of the off Broadway hit, “The Fantasticks” (‘Try to Remember’), and Carlo Vergara’s “Zsa Zsa Zaturnaah” that both didn’t translate well on the big screen.

Locally, a recent musical we enjoyed is “I Do Bidoo” by Chris Martinez, based on the songs of the APO. We don’t know if a film version of the recent hit PETA musical based on the songs of Aegis, “Rak of Aegis”, would be similarly as effective.

Now comes, “Larawan”, based on Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Filipino”, a 3-act play which we personally believe is the best Filipino play in English. Written in 1950, we first saw it as a stage play at the FEU Auditorium starring Daisy Avellana and Naty Crame Rogers in the lead roles of Candida and Paula Marasigan, with Conrad Parham as the intruder, Tony Javier.

We were absolutely blown away by the play, the acting, the entire production. It truly transported us to the eve of the Second World War as we witness the passing of an era. It’s Joaquin tribute to Intramuros and Old Manila, when people had more conscience and integrity, valuing art and poetry more than crass materialism.

In 1965, it was made into a black and white movie by National Artist Lamberto Avellana, with Hontiveros, Rogers and Parham reprising the lead roles. It wasn’t as effective and engrossing for us as the stage version. They made the mistake of showing the actual painting which is just mentioned in the play and supposedly displayed on the 4th wall (which is the audience), with Pianing Vidal as Don Lorenzo and his alter egos, Aeneas and Anchises.

In the early 70s, it was translated into Pilipino and staged by National Artist Lino Brocka at the PETA Rajah Sulayman theatre, with the leads played by Charito Solis and Rita Gomez, and later by Charito and Lolita Rodriguez with Phillip Salvador as Tony Javier. They were both superlative, very engaging versions.

We also saw the fairly good stage version in UP starring Barbara Perez and Susan Valdez. The height of coming up with very liberal adaptations of this classic is when UP also staged a gay version with Anton Juan and the late Behn Cervantes playing Candido and Paulo.

In 1997, “Larawan” was turned into a musical with Ryan Cayabyab doing the music and National Artist Rolando Tinio writing the book and lyrics, with Celeste Legaspi and Zsa Zsa Padilla as the Marasigan sisters and Ricky Davao as Tony. We didn’t exactly fall in love with it. We felt it’s very weak and lacks energy compared to the original straight play, probably because the songs are not really that good. We felt that for a musical to be impressive, it has to have some catchy hummable songs memorable enough to give you LSS (last song syndrome) and this musical does not have that.

Now comes the latest reincarnation of Joaquin’s much loved work, “Larawan, The Movie”, directed by Loy Arcenas, who did pretty good indie films, “Nino” and “Requieme”. Loy does his best to adapt it for the big screen. In one scene, to differentiate it from a filmed play done in only one setting, he sent Candida and Paula to a church, and there’s also a La Naval procession sequence, complete with plenty of costumed extras.

But still, the effect is not as emotionally devastating as the stage versions we’ve seen. This confirms our belief that the material is really best suited for the stage. Joaquin’s play is not designed to be seen on a screen but crafted to be experienced on a live stage. It takes place in just one location (as most other great plays did as it’s very costly to have multiple sets on stage). Less movement of props also allows the audience to focus on what the play is mainly all about: the characters.

Movie audiences have shorter attentions spans and prefer a lot of action on screen for a different kind of rush. Stage and film communicate to the viewers in different ways, so when you try to forge one into another, something seems to get lost in the translation to the big screen. It’s easier to adapt hit musicals to the big screen like what happened in “Beauty and the Beast” and the coming “Lion King” (both adapted from hit animated cartoons) as they can go to town filming it in various locations.

There are lots of plays that won the Tony Award but didn’t become successful as films, like “Doubt”, “Proof”, “August Osage County”. One movie we remember that won Tonys and also Oscars is “Amadeus”.

“Portrait” is evidently meant more for the theatre. Even the revelations (what really happened to Don Lorenzo who is said to be sick, what happened to Candida when she applied as rat catcher, what happened to Paula when she eloped with Tony and what Paula later did to the painting that becomes a personal liberation for her) are all very theatrical. They somehow lose their impact on screen.

The film version is also lacking in energy and there are ovextended scenes which we felt could be trimmed to quicken the pacing. We also feel uncomfortable with the screenplay using gay words of very recent origin, like imbierna, lamierda and borloloy.

Our concept of what a musical should be is that it should be touching and joyous and full of spectacular, exuberant dance numbers and meaningful songs that stay with you even after you’ve left the theatre. Sorry to say that we didn’t feel that in “Larawan”.

We’ve asked a lot of other people how they feel about the movie and the reaction we often get is: “Okay naman”. No superlatives. And that’s how we feel, too. Joanna Ampil won as best actress because she really handled well that scene where she confesses that she’s the one who pushed Paula into the arms of Tony to sell the painting. But Rachel Alejandro also delivers well as Paula and they get great support from Nonie Buencamino and Menchu Yulo as their oppressive siblings, and Robert Arevalo as their ninong, a poet who chooses to forsake his art to become a politician.

Despite our reservations, we strongly urge you to watch “Larawan, The Movie”. Maybe our assessment is hampered by the fact that we’ve seen so many versions of the material through the years and we cannot help making comparisons. We believe those who’re seeing it for the first time will appreciate it more. We watched it with our 40-year old son who’s seeing it for the first time and we asked him how he likes it. His answer: “Okay naman.”