Sunday, November 17, 2013

A Blooming in the Dark

When Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros (The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros) was shown in 2005, debuting at the first Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival, it was groundbreaking. It was the first film to delve into the life of a preteen gay boy as he comes of age in the slums of Manila, deftly and sensitively capturing a uniquely gay experience as well as plumbing universally human emotions.
Although the directing was a tad stilted and “crude,” I remember being amazed by the film, one of the saddest and most beautiful coming-of-age stories I have ever seen with the brilliance of the screenplay, wrought by Michiko Yamamoto, who also wrote Magnifico (2003) and Zombadings 1: Patayin sa Shokot si Remington (2011), shining through.
The digital movie, the feature film debut of director Auraeus Solito produced by ufo Pictures, also caught the attention of critics and film buffs that it was chosen as the Philippines’ official entry to the foreign-language film category of the 2007 Academy Awards, and the most outstanding film of the year at the 2006 Gawad Urian, the country’s most respected award for movies. It also reaped honors at several international film festivals including the Best Film at the 2005 Asian Festival of First Films; the Best Picture at the 2005 Toronto Imagine Native Film Festival; the Golden Zenith Award for Best Picture at the 2005 Montreal World Film Festival; the Teddy Award and Glass Bear Special Mention at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival; and the Independent Spirit Award from the 2007 IFC Spirit Awards. It charmed audiences that it quickly became a gay classic movie.

The Santo Nino procession scene
The Santo Nino procession scene
The Santo Nino procession scene
The Santo Nino procession scene
Neighborhood men dancing
Scene of policemen and prisoners bathing
Scene of policemen and prisoners bathing
Scene of policemen and prisoners bathing
Community protests eviction notices
One the last scenes: Maxie goes to school, notices and then ignores Victor.
The Santo Nino procession
  Now, the story of Maximo Oliveros, nicknamed Maxie, continues to charm and evolve with a new stage musical adaptation, Maxie the Musicale: Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros, which started showing on November 9, 2013, and runs for only 18 performances until December 8 at the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) Theater Center in New Manila, Quezon City.
The musical is being produced by a relatively new company, the Bit by Bit Co., in cooperation with the PETA Theater Center and the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). Founded in 2006, Bit by Bit Company describes itself as a leisure, wellness and entertainment company, but its heads were smitten by theater that they are now into producing and promoting plays.
Darwin Mariano, a lawyer and the play’s executive producer, recalled being inspired going into theater upon watching a staging of Francisco Balagtas’s lesser known but scintillating work, the komedya Orosman at Zafira, by the Dulaang UP (University of the Philippines). Orosman was staged in 2008 for UP’s Komedya Festival and was restaged in 2010. Bit by Bit reproduced it in 2011 at the SM Mall of Asia in Pasay City, and it was during this time the idea for Maxie the Musicale was born.
“After watching one of the performances, we asked our friend and one of the original filmmakers, Jade Castro, if we could adopt his film Endo for the stage. Jade suggested that the better project would be to turn Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros into a musical,” Mariano wrote in the playbill and would recount in several events promoting the play.
Castro said when they were making the movie it crossed their minds that Maximo will lend itself well to a musical.
Mariano considered this as go signal and, with Carlo Miguel Francia as associate producer, whole-heartedly plunged into the project, even mortgaging their own house just to make it happen, he said. He got Dexter Santos to direct it. A Theater Arts graduate and a professor at UP, Santos was the director of the UP Orosman and other plays of Dulaang UP and other companies such as the New Voice Company, Repertory Philippines and Tanghalang Ateneo. Also a choreographer, he did the dance steps for Maxie the Musical.
For the adaptation of the movie and the writing of the book and lyrics, the filmmakers suggested multiple Palanca-award winner, lawyer, poet and playwright Nicolas Pichay, who had a slew of notable works for the stage, including the prize-winning The Slanting Dance of the Buliklik Hawks, a stage adaptation of the Ifugao hudhud chants, and Almanac for a Revolution. The production would describe the adaptation as “based on Michiko Yamamoto’s screenplay…later made into a film directed by Auraeus Solito.”
“It’s like the movie but it’s not the movie,” Pichay would enigmatically say.
He explained that all the elements people love about the film are present but with the interpretations of and insights from the new set of artists involved in the musical. The initial drafts of the adaptation proved to be unwieldy and he constantly revised it, taking heed from the comments and suggestions of others in the production. The final version is the tenth revision, Pichay revealed.
Wala kaming ambisyong tapatan (We never dreamed of replicating) what Maxie did for and means to many people,” Mariano said. The musical adaptation is more of a celebration of the film, he added.
Finding other artists to tap for the other aspects of the production became daunting, especially in the crafting of the music.
“We didn’t want Maxie to sound like anything the audiences have heard before. It had to sound innocent, angry and hopeful all at the same time, while not deviating from what Sampaloc sounded like. After putting together a much longer list, we chose William, JJ and Janine, knowing each would bring their distinct musical identities and influences into the project. We knew they were talented, but we were not prepared for music this amazing and this unforgettable,” Mariano related.
William Elvin Manzano has been working in theater but started writing music in 2011. He has a band called Happy Days Ahead that has produced two independent albums. Hailing from Baguio City, JJ Pimpinio had a business degree but has been into theater and music. On the other hand, Janine Santos is a classical opera singer and has been working in theater as musical director, vocal coach and composer.
The composers created songs in different musical styles, which become evident when differentiating characters. They said they got inspiration from the sounds being played and heard in Sampaloc, the district in Manila in which the story is set. So there is the Manila sound or disco-inspired 1970s music, rock, pop and rhythm and blues. OPM (original Pilipino music) is the primary influence.
In early 2013, the company began a series of auditions, especially for the roles of the two main characters, the twelve-year-old, effeminate Maximo, and the handsome and young police rookie Victor, the object of Maximo’s love. By April, they had found someone to play the role of Maxie, fourteen-year-old Jayvhot Galang from Santa Ana, Manila. Galang has been doing the rounds of amateur singing contests and television searches with a predilection for belting songs like the late singer Whitney Houston. When the producers saw an online clip of him singing, they sought him out and invited him to audition. Without any previous theater experience, Galang was enrolled in the PETA summer acting workshop. In the last five months, he also took up aerobics exercises, dance classes and voice lessons under Santos while attending regular classes in high school.

Fourteen-year-old Jayvhot Galang plays Maxie

Maxie sings of torment while Victor takes in a prostitute

Maxie with father and two brothers, petty criminals who love and protests him, a subversion of reality and perception

Maxie and his posse.

Around May, the role of Victor was given to Jojo Riguerra, architect who turned stage actor, singer and model.
On August 23, Bit by Bit gave a foretaste to a small group of people through “Patikim ng Shlight: Maxie the Musicale Kick-Off” at the Tanghalang Huseng Batute of the CCP, with Kristine Joan Villanueva, Janine Santos, JC Santos, Pimpinio, Jules dela Paz, Neil Tolentino, Via Antonio and Manzano rendering select songs for thirty minutes. Already, many people were hailing Maxie the Musicale to be the theater event of the year.
By that time, the cast and crew was almost complete. The actors included Roeder Camañag and Nazer Salcedo (Paco), Al Gatmaitan and OJ Mariano (Boy), Jay Gonzaga (Bogs), Aaron Ching (Nar), Teetin Villanueva (Monique), Nomer Limatog Jr. (Leslie), Greg de Leon (Chief Dominguez), Eo de Guzman and Merdin Mojica (Peter), with an ensemble composed of Ruth Alferez, John Paul Basco, Jules de la Paz, Irene Delarmente, Elliot Eustacio, Karyl Anne Factora, Jim Andrew Ferrer, Francelle Fetalvero, Al Bernard Garcia, Jeffrey Hernandez, Ronah Rostata and Christian Velarde.
On the other hand, the artistic crew included Gino Gonzales (production designer), John Batalla (lights designer), Ohm David (technical director), Emman Feliciano (assistant director), Stephen Viñas (associate choreographer) and Arkel Mendoza (additional music). The band is composed of William Elvin Manzano and Rigil Borromeo (guitar), Van Quiaong and Bryan Sapigao (piano), Jonah Ruiz (drums), Jon Abella (acoustic guitar) and Charlene Allen Mamaid (bass), with Santos as musical director.
Patikim ng Shlight” fulfils its promise with an exuberant flowering. Maxie the Musicale remains faithful to the screenplay but with flourishes of its own, most of them created to the exigencies of musical theater. These are difficult, if at all, to do in film without undermining its seriousness and sincerity, but the story has a poignancy that is almost innate and hard to dilute. The musical opens with an extravaganza, introducing and attempting to recreate a Sampaloc slum community. From the writer, director to the composers, there is an expressed desire to define Sampaloc and bring it to life onstage with its squalor, contradictions, grime and redeeming aspects, a thing hard to do in theater with its limitations that can render location non-specific and illusory, the apparent artifice and with the creators’ own romanticizations of poverty. 

Jojo Riguerra plays handsome cop Victor
Victor confronts two thuds who molested Maxie

Gonzales’s set design is an assemblage of corrugated iron sheets, plywood and rough shafts of wood, carefully arranged to seem disorderly. The rafter is strewn with laundry.
The opening number sees the community in Sampaloc waking up to a new day, revealing its denizens of different types and singing, “Kumunoy ang takbo/ng buhay sa paligid/Ang lahat ng ganda/kinakain ng limahid/Ang buhay dito, iba’t iba ang hugis/Bahaghari ang kulay ng saya/at pantutugis.” Maxie is also introduced, girlish and well-accepted by the community, which says, “Ngunit may isang beki/na sa ami’y kering-keri/mabait at super lovely/mahinhin at very friendly/maalaga parang mommy.” He is with his barkada composed of two other gay kids, Nar and Leslie, and a fag hag, Monique. His friends have more scenes in the play than in the movie, accompanying Maxie almost throughout the journey.
Also introduced is Maxie’s family, his father Paco and two brothers Boy and Bogs, who are involved in stealing and selling cell phones and operating an illegal jueteng gambling venture. Despite being thugs, they are protective of and loving to Maxie, who serves as mother, cooking dishes and doing the laundry. This is one endearing and inspiring aspect of the story, a sharp subversion of the reality of gay kids being bullied and rejected by their own families.
One night, two men attempt to molest Maxie but is saved by the new cop Victor, caring, honest and upstanding, unlike anyone the community has ever encountered. He resists being bribed even by Maxie’s father, who predicts he will eventually succumb to corruption. Maxie soon develops a powerful crush on the good-looking Victor. They develop an extraordinary and sweet friendship, but conflicts begin to arise that see Maxie being torn between his love for the police officer dedicated to his duty and his loyalty to his family of petty criminals. Conflicts escalate when Boy stabs a girl to death when a robbery goes awry and Victor is bent on finding the offender. At its height, Victor is forced to kill Paco in a confrontation. Their situation is evocative of Romeo and Juliet but not quite Romeo-and-Juliet. I believe Maxie’s story is more complex and nuanced.
The stirring and painful moments are interspersed with exhilarating and uproarious musical numbers. There is a procession in honor of the Santo Niño, with Santo Niño images dressed in different costumes, including an astronaut’s, indicating its similarities to drag shows. Policemen and prisoners have a number during a shower scene, more risible than titillating. There is an amusing segment showing the showy embodiments of Maxie’s fantasies involving him and Victor, such as Victor slaying monsters to save little princess Maxie. But the most rollicking and popular is the beaucon (beauty contest). What starts as a child’s play in the movie transmogrifies into a full-blown spectacle, with Nar, Leslie, Monique and Maxie trying to outdo one another in the talent portion. The musical can actually do without them but they are much fun and they add to the campiness integral to Filipino gay culture, which the main character is part of and the musical wants to depict.
These entertaining segments are counterbalanced by the injection of social commentary such as the scene of demolition of shanties and the people’s defiance.

Victor carries Maxie home after saving him from two bullies

Maxie fantasizes about the brave Victor saving him, the princess in distress, from monsters.

Maxie and Victor eat out at a food vendor's ambulant stall

Maxie comforts Victor after being mugged by his two brothers.

Maxie meets Victor for the first time.
 But at the heart of all these is Maxie and Victor. Galang portrays Maxie with considerable competence, although the voice can falter at heart-rending moments and his natural “playfulness” sometimes threatens to dissipate the character Maxie’s innocence and lovable naivety, which is the strength of Nathan Lopez’s portrayal in the film. Riguerra is more rugged in looks than the original Victor, the boyish and disarming JR Valentin. But both have their own ways of weakening the knees, taking the breath and touching the heart in the most nonchalant ways.
Their story is a flower, impossibly beautiful and impossibly evanescent, always threatened from the outside and from within.
Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros is in the heart of the gays of this generation and will be in the hearts of generations to come. It is extends beyond this time and reaches out any gender group, because it is great, it is art, a beautiful blossoming in the dark of the theater and in the dark of the world.

Maxie the Musicale: Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros runs from November 9 to December 8, with shows on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8 P.M. and matinee shows on Saturdays and Sundays at 3 P.M. All performances are at the PETA Theater Center, 5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. For show information, call 0917-8427346 or email Follow Maxie on Twitter (@MaxieTheMusicale) or visit on Facebook. Tickets are available at all TicketWorld (891-9999) and SM Tickets (470-2222) outlets.