Showbiz' ultimate leading man takes on Rizal's alter-ego on the musical stage
“Prayers, please,” that he and the production do well was multi-awarded actor Piolo Pascual's self-effacing reply to The T-Zone's congratulatory message following his first public performance this week as local musical theater's latest Ibarra. Singing live with a lone piano accompaniment, he passionately delivered a soaring snippet from “Kanser,” the prize-winning musical adaptation of Jose Rizal's “Noli Me Tangre” by Jomar Fleras at the GSIS Museum.
Known as the longest-running play in Philippine history, the patriotic musical “Kanser” turned 40 this year and was simply but dramatically retitled “Ibarra” for its special anniversary staging.
Both grateful and honored to have been asked by Tanghalang Una Obra to portray the iconic lead for a 10-night run in June, Piolo sang the lyrics to “Awit ni Ibarra” a cut above his trademark singing style for variety shows, concerts and recordings. His voice was full and controlled even through the crescendos, with every word of such deeply verbose Filipino lyrics hitting every respective note with clarity and precision.
From where The T-Zone sat, it was evident how Piolo had left the heartthrob singer at the door, singing confidently all the same, but at this crossroads, from deep within his core and what looked like every part of his body.
Obviously, Piolo is taken by the role of Rizal's learned, idealistic and patriotic protagonist quite intensely. On the one hand, it is definitely a big deal for a serious actor like him to be invited from mainstream entertainment to professional theater. On the other, he earnestly relates to the character of Ibarra. For, just as Ibarra passionately sought freedom from colonialism, the top actor has long been an active and fervent advocate of nation-building through his charities and socially-conscious endeavors.
Ever humble, though, Piolo didn't take credit for how different he sounded and skillfully performed that day. Instead, he thanked two of the country's best classical singers and coaches, who happen to be married, for teaching him the proper technique for the live stage. Namely, they are tenor Pablo and soprano Camille Molina (née Lopez) of the revered Viva Voce Voice Lab.
“As you know, I got so used to singing pop music,” he told The T-Zone during the media conference that followed. “But when I first started rehearsing for 'Ibarra,' I told my mom, 'Mommy, pang stage yata talaga ako [I think I'm really meant for musical theater],'” he added, laughing.
“My way of singing changed instantly, and it was a welcome change for me. It's a privilege to be coached by Pablo and Camille.”
Never without a project or endorsement throughout his career, the persistently sought-after celebrity revealed he had long wanted to do theater for a long time now. Apparently, it was on stage where his love for acting began as an active member of FEU's high school theater club and UST's Teatro Tomasino in college.
Piolo counted nearly three decades since his last stage production and recalled its title to be “Juan de la Cruz in New York City.”
“There were offers from different theater guilds through the years, including adaptations of different Broadway shows but nothing fit into my schedule,” he related.
With the pandemic wiping everyone's schedules clear, not only did his dream to return to theater come true with the offer of Tanghalanng Una Obra, but his long-held wish to portray Crisostomo Ibarra in any production of “Noli Me Tangere” that would come his way.
“That and doing a musical have always been on my bucket list,” he happily related, well on his way to ticking off a two-in-one come opening night.
Despite his stature, though, Piolo admitted he is as nervous as he is excited. He likewise feels intimidated to be working with topnotch theater professionals like Carla Guevarra Laforteza (Dona Victorina), whose credits go as far as the West End, and performance arts regulars like Myramae Meneses (Maria Clara), Jeffrey Hidalgo (Elias), Floyd Tena (Padre Damaso), Carlo Mañalac (Padre Salvi), Jon Joven Uy (Pilosopo Tasyo) and Nicole Laurel Asensio (Sisa) to name a few.
“Nanginginig ako [I get jitters] performing with them,” Pascual confessed again, almost oblivious that the production is just as honored and grateful as he is, if not more, that he has lent his immense celebrity to their less popular but incredibly challenging art form.
Winning the lottery, in fact, is how “Ibarra” director Frannie Zamora described securing Piolo's commitment to the production.
He likewise revealed that when Fleras asked him if he was amenable to mounting the 40th-anniversary revival of “Kanser” he said yes but on one condition.
“I said I would only do it if Piolo would be in it,” Zamora disclosed.
Now acquainted with just how easy it is to deal with the superstar that Piolo is, the director further shared that his big-name lead didn't even ask about talent fees.
Moreover, when Piolo commits, he truly commits and is, therefore, as professional, punctual and invested in the project as everyone is. Culture shock from showbiz to theater's rigorous ways will hardly be a problem for the man.
And so it goes without saying that the entire production behind 2023's “Ibarra” is star-struck by showbiz's Mr. Piolo Pascual, though not in the way they expected. Sure, he is handsome and dreamy, and his eyes are as mesmerizing as they say, but never did they know from across the pond just how down-to-earth he can be.
Opening in time for the Philippines' 125th year of independence, joining Zamora in “Ibarra's” production team are Joed Balsamo (musical director), Paul Morales (choreographer), Mio Infante (production designer) and Dong Calingacion (lights designer), with live accompaniment of The Manila Symphony Orchestra.
The musical will run from June 8 to 18 at the GSIS Theater. Ticket sales start by May at Ticketworld.
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