RAKINANGINA! (Or, why I can’t stop blurting out expletives while watching Rak of Aegis)

Cards on the table, first of all: I first saw Rak of Aegis in February last year, and again in March. I was so enamored by the entire production I couldn’t stop singing Aegis songs for weeks, and the withdrawal caused me to create an unofficial fanpage for the production . . . because I needed an outlet for my overflowing love, obviously.

At about the same time, I, together with my friend and co-fanpage moderator, Rica, began forging friendships with the cast members. They were very happy to see the effort we put on the fanpage, and were very appreciative of it. We couldn’t be happier, and would constantly get bouts of kilig over getting likes and favorites all over Facebook and Twitter.

Come June of last year, we went to the fictional barangay Villa Venizia again and were wowed by how much the musical had improved. The storyline was tighter, running time shorter, and even if I’ve already seen it twice before, there’s still that magic I felt when I saw it for the first time. Or the second time.

Before 2014 came to a close, I was able to see the production for six times already, and even then, the cast and crew of the hottest musical of the year were still giving us something new. It is truly a gift that keeps on giving, and by god, I took everything I could. I got intoxicated with everything Rak of Aegis had to offer, and my hangover was so immense it lasted me six months more until the production opened again this June.

(Further review of the musical under the cut. THERE ARE SPOILERS, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)

PLOT

Aileen Dimaraan is a lady of big hopes and dreams. She works as a saleslady at a shopping center, but her job only pays commission off the items she’s able to sell. Because their family isn’t well off, and she wants to help her mother and father do more than just pay the bills, she aims for something that promises quick popularity and quick bucks: becoming a Youtube sensation who’d get even Ellen Degeneres’ attention. She acquires the help of a suitor, Kenny, who borrows a digital camera to film Aileen singing. It’s her vocal talent, she believes, that will help alleviate their dire financial situation.

Unfortunately, a typhoon puts a damper on her plans, in more ways than one. As they film Aileen’s supposed ticket to fame, hard rain starts to pour and flood begins to rise. Frantic, the residents of Villa Venizia scamper for safety, and after Aileen rushes home to her family, Kenny figures in a street mishap that causes him to lose the borrowed camera.

Kenny (Poppert Bernadas) serenades Aileen (Kimverlie Molina) with “Hahanapin Ko.” [ Photo taken from the PETA website. ]
Meanwhile, Mercy and Kiel (Aileen’s parents) are in a somber discussion with Villa Venizia’s Barangay Captain, Mary Jane. Also running her own shoemaking business, Mary Jane tells the couple she won’t be able to give them their full salary this month, as sales have been dwindling. Add that to the fact that the constant flood had damaged most of their stocks, and you’ve got a business going bankrupt. Kiel requests Mary Jane’s help; whatever she’s giving isn’t enough to keep their family afloat any longer. But Mary Jane insists that at least he has Mercy to help him, while she has no one.

We are given a glimpse of how Kiel and Mary Jane were lovers in the past, but something happened, and now they are leading very different lives. Kiel has Mercy and Aileen, while Mary Jane has her son, Kenny, whom she thinks is doing nothing productive in his life because he’s too focused on drawing.

Personal conflict arises when Aileen finds out that Kenny had lost the camera they used to film her video, followed by her getting laid off from work. Her ticket to fame and main source of income are gone, and because both her parents aren’t earning so well, either, their finances become her burden to carry.

Tolits (Jerald Napoles) and Aileen (Aicelle Santos) have a dream-like boat ride in spite of the flood. [ Photo taken from the PETA website. ]
Enter Tolits, the Villa Venizia boatman who has been harboring feelings for Aileen. At her lowest moment, he offers to shoot another video for her so she could continue pursuing her flighty dream. And she does.

She makes it big on Youtube, and the rest is history.

But not quite.

Apparently, Villa Venizia’s flood problem isn’t only caused by force majeure. It’s a man-made problem more than anything, and the proponent of said problem wants an easy way out. Or at least a way wherein he doesn’t end up getting mugged, or jailed. He shakes hands with Venizia’s Barangay Captain, Mary Jane, and pulls together a band-aid solution to the barangay’s situation.

This involves Aileen, of course, because she’d already put Villa Venizia on the map, in a manner of speaking. Her popularity over Youtube had already spilled over, and people have begun flocking to Villa Venizia to meet her. In true Pinoy fashion, all this attention transforms into a commodity, in which flood-related merchandise–even activities–are sold, and proceeds go to the Barangay Health Center, so that it may continue operations.

The intentions are good, but the means is questionable. Here is where the residents of Villa Venizia are split: Do they make the best out of their situation and play everything by ear, or do they solve the situation first and make the best out of their lives afterwards?

EXECUTION

Rak of Aegis‘ weaving storylines may seem too complicated on paper, but the writer-director tandem of Liza Magtoto and Maribel Legarda did an excellent job making it seem like a breeze. While the first run left a lot of room for improvement, the team made it a point to observe and listen to what the viewers had to say, and tell each character’s stories in the best possible way. If you had seen the evolution of the musical just like we did, you would notice how each character’s voice strengthened along the way, how even the peripheral characters can now hold your attention, demand for your heart and crush it.

Even the song arrangements change from run to run. I must admit that I am easily impressed by little things like this, and I feel like if anyone had filmed me watching Rak all seven times, they would see how I’d react whenever I’d hear something new in the lineup. It doesn’t even have to be a new song. It could only be the way the songs are arranged, or how an actor belts out a line differently from when I last saw the show. I’m always so amazed, I’d have to cover my mouth to keep myself from yelling out “TANG INA” every time.

Barangay Villa Venizia cheer happily for their hometown heroine, Aileen (Kimverlie Molina). [ Photo taken from the PETA Facebook Fanpage. ]
(As of this writing, two new songs have been infused into the musical: “Para Kay Aileen,” and “Sayang na Sayang.” One is so much fun, and one is heartbreaking. Watch out for it.)

Oh, and the stage. It’s the first thing that ever captured me during my first visit to Villa Venizia. I’d only ever seen one musical in PETA prior to Rak of Aegis, and that was Maxie: The Musicale. I was pleasantly surprised with how Maxie‘s stage was both aesthetically good (in a rugged sort of way, because the slums can never really be easy on the eyes) and functional at the same time. When Rak came along, I was absolutely floored seeing the stage. It had the same aesthetic and functional qualities that Maxie‘s had, but theirs was so much more magical with the rain and the flood and Tolits’ bangka rolling in and out of the picture every so often. Just being there is an experience, and I have nothing but praises for the team who conceptualized it and breathed it to life.

THE PERFORMERS

Gosh, where do I even start?

The more popular Aegis songs out there are usually the ones about heartbreak–I know, because I sing them every so often at videoke rooms and such–and it was a delight to hear them weaved seamlessly into a story. Granted, some of the songs were modified to fit certain characters’ stories, but these modifications never took away the magic of Aegis’ songwriting. The more I see the musical, the more difficult it is for me to pick a favorite song/scene out of them all, so please bear with me while I recount whatever I could from everyone’s performances instead.

The first time I saw Rak of Aegis is the first time I’ve ever seen THE Robert Seña (Kiel) performing live, which was a real treat because I have been a fan of his vocal talent since . . . oh I don’t know, college? (Those who know me well enough know how long ago that is.) Needless to say, I was in tears by the time the second act developed. He was just so awesome and guh, one could only be so lucky to be graced by his on-stage presence.

Equally awesome was his wife, Isay Alvarez, who played Mary Jane opposite his Kiel. Her vocal quality is different from Kalila Aguilos’ (who also plays Mary Jane), but was just as powerful. Let me just say it now: Luha, or that Kiel-Mary Jane confrontation scene will always be one of my first favorites, because god damn that level of emotion being thrown across the stage is nothing short of lethal. I remember holding my breath every time that scene came on, maybe even clutching my chest. Grabe makahugot ‘tong dalawang ‘to, promise.

I’ve also seen Stella Cañete play Mary Jane last December, and she was a delight to watch. She gave Mary Jane a childlike feel to her, somewhat, like she retained the part of Mary Jane that Kiel perhaps loved. And to feel like that side of Mary Jane got locked away, never to be seen or heard of again after the Luha scene was perhaps what set me off during that performance.

OJ Mariano joined the second run as an alternate for Kiel, and he made for an amazing part of the cast. Unlike Robert’s Kiel, whose delivery of lines was often angry and biting, OJ’s was more subdued. The lines he delivered had the same root, but somehow, it felt more heartbreaking when he said it, like every word carried the weight of the world he’s been carrying on his shoulders. I can’t articulate it right now but it’s like instead of rebelling because your father won’t allow you to follow your dreams, you’d feel bad for even having those dreams in the first place. That’s how OJ’s Kiel felt like on stage. And don’t even get me started on his vocals because brevity and I aren’t the best of friends. All I can say is that he’s improved a lot since his Star in A Million days (that’s where we first got to know him), and it makes me very proud to see him perform all the damn time.

The two actresses who played Mercy also had very different takes on the character. Neomi Gonzales was more mayumi, and you could see her motherly ways in the manner she would look at Aileen or embrace her. Meanwhile, Kakai Bautista was the Rak equivalent of Regina George’s mom in Mean Girls, AKA the cool mom. She’d poke fun at her daughter, but at the same time encourage her. She’d cry about their dire financial status, and crack a joke right after. Their takes on the same character are so different, it’s refreshing to watch a second or third (in my case, seventh) time. But even as their portrayals are different, their vocal are of the same crystalline quality. Pure, unadulterated and heavenly.

I was lucky enough to be able to watch all three Aileens–Joan Bugcat, Aicelle Santos, and Kimverlie Molina. Each one of them brought a different interpretation of the character to the stage, and they were all successful in playing the determined, family-loving Aileen who only wished for a better life for her family. Of all three, it’s Aicelle Santos I’ve seen the most (5/7), so I guess it’s only normal for me to have gotten more attached to her portrayal than the other two. She sings and belts out notes like its nobody’s business, never forgetting to carry with it the emotion her character’s situation required. Indeed, without an effective actress, Aileen might be difficult to root for, but Aicelle makes it seem like a walk in the park.

Special mention to Kimverlie Molina (whom I’ve seen during the December run), who was able to make me cry even more—yes, I never thought that was even possible–with her portrayal of Aileen. There was just something there, perhaps the more innocent, more hopeful vibe that she infused into her character that made Kiel’s opposition toward her dream all the more heartbreaking. Props.

Even before Kung Paano Ako Naging Leading Lady opened this year, my heart (and many others’) was set on one leading man: Tolits. Played to perfection by actors Jerald Napoles and Pepe Herrera, Tolits is the earnest and lovable, sometimes jologs guy we’d all like to meet sometime in our lives. I’ve seen Pepe play the part more than Jerald (4/7), and I’ve always maintained the opinion that the former’s voice is more rockstar-ish than the latter’s, but that doesn’t mean I prefer one over the other. I could tell you, however, that when I heard Pepe sing I Love You Na Lang Sa Tago for the first time, I had to pick my jaw up from the floor. And then, the next time we saw Jerald, he kind of “leveled-up” and blew us away during that number too! Oh these boys make our lives so hard.

It’s interesting to note, though, that the first few times we’ve seen the musical, we’ve referred to Jerald as the “Macho Tolits” (because come on, have you seen him?) and Pepe as the “Inglisero Tolits” (because he would usually blurt English lines, to everyone’s amusement). As time went by, we noticed how the Tolits character became a mix of both actors’ interpretations. It’s not necessarily bad. If anything, it was amusing to see how the most-loved Rak character evolved through each performance.

(There’s a third Tolits joining the cast for this run, by the way. His name is Benj Manalo, and I really wish we could catch a performance of his one time.)

Poppert Bernadas is a fucking gem. Seriously. Some people may argue that his vocal stylings are over the top, but I think he’s a perfect fit for theater productions, especially when breathing life into characters like Kenny. Statistics wise, I’ve seen him play Kenny five out of seven times, and every single time, he moves me. He’s also the person who makes me want to curse out loud the most, but for good reasons. When he does Rockin’ in the City, he just slays that falsetto like woah. And during the current run, he does a tremendous job with Sayang na Sayang, it almost felt like an out-of-body experience. As for Myke Salomon who alternates as Kenny, his portrayal has a more princely feel to it. I’m not so sure how to put it, really–maybe it’s the way he looks or carries himself on stage, or the quality of his voice, but his Kenny seemed more regal, polished. This makes the contrast between himself and any actor who plays Tolits more glaring, because “Hello, leading man looks” versus, well, Tolits.

I’d like to add as well that I’ve only ever seen Myke beatboxing with the AKAFellas and as a TadJock for the now-defunct Wazzup Wazzup on Studio 23 (which I worked for) so I’ve never really heard him sing until Rak. Boy, that was a surprise!

Out of the three actors whom I’ve seen play Jewel, Phi Palmos is my favorite. Maybe it’s because he’s the first Jewel we saw, or because he just owns the character so damn well. This is not to say, of course, that Ron Alfonso and Jimmy Marquez didn’t make an impression when they wore Jewel’s stilleptos. They were all amazing in their own way, providing laughs at the right moments, and wowing us with their vocals during that doble-karaoke Sinta number. I tried doing that on my own and gave myself a sore throat. It’s difficult, mind you.

Julienne Mendoza has got to be my favorite Fernan, in that you couldn’t really hate him for his skewed mindset because he seems like a teddy bear. Weird, I know. My dream right now is to see him perform with wife Stella Cañete. Because reasons. Other actors who portrayed the role of Fernan are Nor Domingo and Arnell Ignacio.

The ensemble was a force to be reckoned with, too. Rak didn’t have a huge cast or ensemble, but they maximized the participation of every single member, and the resulting product was nothing short of brilliant. To this day, I still get goosebumps and tear up every time they sing Gumising Na Tayo or Munting Pangarap. I am not associated to any of them by blood, but I always feel like a proud family member watching them from my favorite spot at the balcony.

PARTING SHOTS

The heart of Rak of Aegis‘ story is the Filipino resilience in the midst of adversity. Like Aileen, most of us have, in one way or another, felt helpless over things beyond our control. But as the saying goes, there’s always a rainbow after the rain, and we get up more times than we fall down. We emerge victorious in many different aspects of our lives, and that’s what keeps us going.

In many ways, Rak of Aegis is a celebration of the Filipino spirit. I feel like this is the biggest factor as to why This Little Musical That Could became The Little Musical That Succeeded. We Filipinos need something to remind us of our own trials and tribulations, to be shown how we overcome adversities in the best ways we know how, and to be told that there is hope through it all. There is always something to look forward to. Rak was a tiny flame that ignited many a heart to believe in a lot of different things: beauty in tragedy, striving hard for your dreams, and above everything, love. Love for family and friends, love for community, love for a significant other, and any other form of love you could think of. You can be sure this flame won’t be dying anytime soon, and neither would the clamor for Rak of Aegis.

Overall Rating: ★★★★★
I want to thank Rak of Aegis for: bringing together the most wonderful group of people to have ever graced a stage, for warm, appreciative, newfound friendships, and for rendering me penniless every once in a while haha!
My favorite Rak of Aegis character is: Jusko, tinatanong pa ba ito!?
If I had the moolah, I will watch it again for: EVERYTHING. The house calls. The cast. The songs. The set. Seriously. I could watch two consecutive shows and be the happiest person in the world. ❤

Rak of Aegis runs from Tuesday to Sunday at the PETA Theater Center (#5 Eymard Drive, New Manila) until August 16, 2015. For tickets, you may contact the numbers listed here, or buy them through Ticketworld. If you could only watch one Filipino musical this year, do yourself a favor and watch Rak of Aegis.

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