Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical is a story about Ah Tiong, a Chinese scholar, and Lily, a Filipina singer, whose love prevails over racial prejudice and political turmoil.
Helmed by Joel Lamangan, the musical examines how the cultural nuances and societal expectations of the Chinese and the Filipinos prevent its characters from fully expressing their mutual love and devotion to each other.
At the same time, the political undertones of the story reflect how both native-born Chinese and Manila-born Chinese—or Tsinoys—are faced with internal issues about national loyalty.
The native-born Chinese question their loyalty to their country with the Cultural Revolution looming over the capital, while Tsinoys get questioned whether they have say in Martial Law or not.
Binondo begins in 1972 with Ah Tiong, played by Arman Ferrer, visiting Manila for two weeks. He arrives just in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival or the so-called "Moon Festival", which is a romantic occasion for the Chinese.
Ah Tiong stumbles across the Lotus Club where he meets Lily, played by Shiela Valderrama-Martinez.
It is love at first sight.
This concerns Carlos, played by Noel Rayos, who has been secretly in love with Lily since they were kids. He tries to convince her that Ah Tiong is not worth the chase, but her infatuation persists.
Lily confides in her cousin Lourdes, played by Jennifer Villegas, about her feelings for Ah Tiong.
But the fact that the man is a Chinese scholar visiting Manila for only two weeks makes Lourdes doubt that a deep relationship will bloom.
Lily's mother, played by Ima Castro, overhears this conversation and forbids her daughter to pursue any relationship with the Chinese scholar.
Still, fate appears to be on Lily and Ah Tiong's side as they stumble across each other along the streets of Binondo one night.
This pushes forth their unparalleled love for each other.
The first act of the stage musical showcases the show's prominent strengths.
From the get-go, audiences are introduced to the warm and vibrant world of Binondo with its elaborate set design, dynamic choreography, and colorful costumes.
An ensemble fills up the stage. They are led by a chorus clad in traditional Chinese attire who serves as the audience stand-in and the omniscient narrators of the story.
The songs pack a punch with each solo and duet highlighting the musicality of the cast.
This is particularly apparent with the song number "The Moon Represents My Heart," a Chinese song that Ah Tiong and Lily sing in duet.
Ferrer and Valderrama-Martinez have believable and palpable chemistry on stage, successfully creating kilig moments for the crowd.
Meanwhile, Rayos has the difficult task of playing a gutless yet likeable adversary to Ferrer's Ah Tiong.
By no means is Carlos the typical rival love interest, who is often written to be arrogant and deceitful.
In fact, the audience is given reason to emphatize with Carlos, a Tsinoy, through his rejected love confession to Lily and his nagging obligations to family.
Rayos is also given the important task of singing one of the key songs of the play, which is "Ako Ay Pilipino."
This song is his character's love song to the Philippines and his declaration that he is for the Filipino people despite his Chinese roots.
"Ako Ay Pilipino" echoes the nationalistic spirit of the time as well, with Filipino protesting against Martial Law.
Unfortunately, this key sequence lacks sufficient build-up and proper foundation as the first half of the musical also presents the show's major flaw: its pacing.
Despite its careful efforts to set up the mood, setting, and characters at the beginning, Binondo moves with a fast-forward pace that hurts most of the story's character developments and relationships.
In terms of its romance, it is unclear why audiences should root for Lily and Ah Tiong to be together beyond the reason that they are fated to be so.
The audience is asked to believe that Ah Tiong, who is arranged to marry his childhood best friend Jasmine in China, has turned his back on the age-old tradition and has set himself to live a different life with Lily.
There is not enough time for their mutual infatuation to believably grow into something deeper and profound, and it doesn't help that their whirlwind romance along the streets of Binondo climaxes in a motel room.
When it comes to the story's political subtext, the fast-forward pace significantly hurts the "Ako Ay Pilipino" song number because there was not enough time to elaborate on Carlos's internal conflict as a Tsinoy at the time of Martial Law.
The song does not leave a stronger impact as originally intended because the song number is performed a bit too early in the story.
At that point, audiences are still fixated on how Lily and Ah Tiong will meet again.
Still, the musical moves forward with its second half and the story turns its focus to the political turmoil happening in China.
Ah Tiong returns, hoping to properly tell his family and Jasmine his intentions of moving to the Philippines to be with Lily.
But the looming threat of the military puts all of these plans to a halt as Ah Tiong sees his father captured, tortured, and forced to serve to the government.
Ah Tiong suffers the same fate.
Without giving too much of the ending, the second half thrives on the solid performances of its cast. The musical finally slows down, albeit too late, to give enough room for its actors to shine and its story to breathe.
Jasmine, played by Mariella Laurel, doesn't come off as an active love rival to Lily.
In fact, she is rather understanding and supportive of Ah Tiong, even encouraging him to go back to the Philippines and find Lily.
But by that point in the story, it is clear that Binondo is headed for a tragic ending as two decades have passed and Lily and Ah Tiong have lived separate lives.
Though their longing for each other have remained constant, the play suggests that Lily and Ah Tiong's romance was meant to be short-lived but powerful.
As the story ends on a bittersweet note, the musical wraps up with a tender yet spirited finale as the stage springs to life the warm colors of Binondo one more time.
Overall, this original Filipino musical written by Ricky Lee is an admirable feat. Each song composed by Von de Guzman is as heartfelt and poignant. The choreography done by Powerdance's Douglas Nierras gives the musical a distinct flair, bringing together a lively ensemble that more of our local productions should put up.
Grand and ambitious, here's hoping Binondo: A Tsinoy Musical will open doors to more original stories and epic productions on our local theater stage.
Ed's Note: The "PEP Review" section carries the views of individual reviewers, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the PEP editorial team.