Ang Huling El Bimbo Is Waves of Nostalgia Broken by Hope and Carrying on

By Lorena Osorio (Class 2021)

Warning: some spoilers.

 

Because I was born near the turn of the twenty-first century, my appreciation for rock-jangle-pop-experimental band Eraserheads didn’t stem from singing along to their songs on the radio at the peak of their popularity, as the songs I was learning then were nursery rhymes (and yes, “…Baby One More Time”). It was in high school that I finally plunged into their discography and discovered that a lot of songs I’ve heard from other artists were actually Eraserheads covers. My indoctrination only rolled forward from there, as I found their lyrics sharp and vivid, and their music both immediate yet engaging. I was far from being the biggest Eraserheads fan, but I thought I knew enough to be excited for how the Dexter Santos-directed musical adaptation would bring the well-loved tunes into the stage.

The plot consists of two narratives, set twenty years apart and weaving between each other to ultimately drive the past and present together. The late 90’s account revolves around three friends Hector, Emman, and Anthony in their sunny years in a university unnamed but we all know to be the University of the Philippines (where Eraserheads were also formed). The present narrative tells of how these three friends, since estranged and living their no-longer-sunny midlives, are reunited following a tragic event. The timing of the story as it relates to the real world is of course no coincidence. The middle to late 90’s were Eraserheads’ heyday, and their songs were college students’ anthems. Twenty years into the future brings us to 2018, where these same college students find themselves in the Newport Performing Arts Theater, swept in nostalgia and heartfelt singalongs.

While some of the subtler jokes and references the Gen X crowd laughed at went right over my head, on the whole the issues and problems tackled in the play were all too familiar. Emman (Boo Gabunada, OJ Mariano) is a student working hard to get his family out of the lower middle class while trying to maintain a long-distance relationship. Anthony (Topper Fabregas, Jon Santos), the son of a decorated military officer, is coming to terms with his homosexuality. Hector (Reb Atadero, Bibo Reyes, Gian Magdangal) is the disillusioned burgis whose militant inclinations do not sit well with his parents. These dormmates-turned-best-friends encounter Joy (Tanya Manalang, Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo), one year their junior and — dare I say it? — resident manic pixie dream girl. Niece and right hand of Tiya Dely (Sheila Francisco), owner of a carinderia the protagonists frequent, Joy fast becomes Emman’s little sister, Anthony’s best friend, and Hector’s potential love interest. Soon, the boys are about to graduate from college, and the four of them decide to take a final road trip to Antipolo to celebrate their friendship.

In the same vein, a lot of Eraserheads songs were used in the play exactly the way you expect them to. “Tindahan ni Aling Nena” featured courtship in front of sari-sari stores, “Minsan” was an acoustic guitar-driven number on precious bonds forged in college, “Huwag Kang Matakot” was sung every time someone got anxious about something, “Fine Time” expressed a wistfulness to spend time with someone special, “Overdrive” and “Alapaap” played as they drove up the mountains of Antipolo, and “Para sa Masa” steered twenty years’ worth of the characters’ sentiments into the present. Even so, these numbers perfectly fit the scenes as they come, through moods jubilant, comforting, tender, and confused. Moreover, the stage props and backdrop screen were both efficient and elegant, helping to move the plot along as opposed to passively creating the setting. Who could forget the haunting echoes of “Pwede bang itigil muna ang pag-ikot ng mundo?” while the floor continues to spin unrelentingly?

Screenshot from Resorts World Manila’s Youtube video “Ang Huling El Bimbo Opening” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otpu-08cIFo)

Because the story never really takes off on any large plot twists (at least, none you wouldn’t expect), the more thrilling aspect to the production was how the band’s songs were creatively used as elements to tell the story. ROTC marches served as the rigid backdrop to whimsical “Cutterpillow” and campfire favorite “Pare Ko”. An eerie version of “With a Smile” was used in the graduation scene right after the night in Antipolo, and the dark notes seemed to linger with the dim violet colors on the stage. “Tikman” was a particularly unexpected standout, with the bright lyrics in stark contrast to the sequence. A personal favorite is “Shirley”, where the unassuming affirmatory quip “Surely!” becomes an inventive and entertaining commentary on puppy love (or maybe I’ve just always been heavily infatuated with that song in general).

Of course, there were misses as well, mostly during the second half. The problem I found with the present sequence – where the three men moved on from their post-college years and into the “real world” issues of career, marriage, and identity – is that it didn’t have a life of its own, no matter how beautifully the female supporting characters sang. Their current lives had no redeeming qualities, no special moments or people to appreciate (except perhaps “Punk Zappa”), and seemed only to exist to prove how far the protagonists’ reality has strayed from the dreams of their college years. Moreover, an important aspect about Eraserheads is that most of their songs tell not only emotions but also stories of their own. Taken into a wholly different context, the lyrics at times seem forced and uninspired, as if the audience were expected to fill in the blanks of poor character development with the lyrics. For example, the scene incorporating “Huwag Mo Nang Itanong” takes the song’s theme of delicate silent treatments in long-term relationships to quickly explain away the relationship status of the scene’s characters in two minutes.

The ending, however, still hits home. Like the best and most memorable Eraserheads songs, the story resonates with the deep and timeless familiarities of hope and lasting friendships. I still find the resolution lacking in terms of how the characters would step forward from all that has happened back into their present lives, but then I see why Ang Huling El Bimbo would choose instead to linger on reminiscence and reconciliation. After all, the goal of the show is to make us reevaluate and relive our years of youth and promise to overcome trial and tragedy — something I don’t quite relate to just yet, but also something the musical had me fervently sing along to. It was indeed a wonderful sight as the cast looked on, hands together, singing “Alapaap” with such hope and grace. The question now is, gusto mo bang sumama?

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