Review: Ateneo-La Salle musical just like the ball game

Posted at 01/31/2013 6:53 PM | Updated as of 01/31/2013 6:55 PM
A scene from the musical "Rivalry"

MANILA, Philippines – Why would anyone want to watch a musical based on the basketball rivalry between Ateneo and La Salle? More importantly, will the musical itself be any good?

These and more were just some of the questions that came to mind before I watched “Rivalry: Ateneo-La Salle The Musical, 2nd Round” last week at the Meralco Theater.

Set in 1968, the musical tells the story of the rivalry between Ateneo and La Salle in the NCAA men’s basketball season before both teams went on to the UAAP.

The play centers on Tommy Basilio (Mako Alonso), La Salle's star player and top rival of Ateneo star player Paco Valencia (OJ Mariano). The two are cousins who are split by their loyalties to their schools and their need to win the basketball championship.

A complication ensues when Valencia’s brother, Quito (Red Concepcion), falls in love with Maryknoll student Reena San Jose (Athena Tibi) and asks Basilio to act as a go-between. Instead of acting as a bridge, Basilio falls for San Jose and must choose whether to continue his pursuit of Reena or keep his word to Quito.

First, the good: "Rivalry" boasts of probably the best songs I’ve heard in a Filipino musical for some time. I’m astonished they haven’t cut a CD for the cast recording because the music by Ed Gatchalian and Joel Trinidad is phenomenal and totally deserves the Best Music for a Filipino Musical award by Broadway World (Philippines) in 2012.

Some of the standout songs in this play are “A Boy From La Salle,” which is effortlessly funny and earned the first, well deserved round of applause; “Matira ang Matibay,” which gives the play a touch of the Broadway hit “Grease”; the boisterous “Let It Play” and “The Thin Line” by Mariano and Alonso.

The leads are also good. Alonso as Tommy Basilio is smooth and funny despite being a true blue Atenean in real life. He later admitted that he had to study his brother, a La Sallite, on how to act like a Green Archer.

“Mas mayabang lang ng kaunti,” he said.

Alonso is a compelling lead who does most of the heavy lifting in this play especially since his character has the most developed story arc.

OJ Mariano (center) leads the Ateneans in the musical "Rivalry"

On the other hand, OJ Mariano gets short shrift as the bullheaded Ateneo player Paco Valencia. This is a shame because Mariano has a much stronger singing voice than Alonso. When he sings the first line of his solo "They say it's up to me" - it's electrifying. Sadly, his Valencia is basically a one-note character, driven to succeed, mostly sullen but willing to see that he is turning into a better man because of the rivalry.

The two other leads: Athena Tibi as Reena San Jose and Red Concepcion as Quito Valencia, play out the other two sides in the love triangle. Tibi is magnetic on stage, while Quito is sort of the everyman comic relief whose character conflict drives the story forward.

This is where the story takes a slight detour: instead of Paco and Tommy fighting over the girl, it is Paco’s brother who falls for Reena. This would have been OK except that Quito is not as compelling a character as Paco.

Concepcion’s Quito is actually a POV character that introduces the play and acts like the referee between the warring Basilio and Valencia. When the love triangle starts to form, he becomes the center of the story and detracts from the basketball rivalry.

For sure, there are consequences but I feel this story angle somewhat waters down the drama between the two leads.

The little period era jokes throughout are like a wink to the audience: this is a play that gets laughs by namedropping Little Quiapo, Shoemart and Maryknoll. Even the small period touches such as the Frigidaire ref and the San Mig bottles lend an authenticity to the play.

Also part of the fun of watching this play is the audience reaction. While director Jaime del Mundo might have wanted non-Ateneans and La Sallites to watch “Rivalry,” this is really a play that is best experienced with a crowd from those schools.

Throughout the play, audience members would suddenly break into loud cheers for specific performers, whooping, clapping and giving high fives over a piece of dialogue or a lyric. This was especially true when the jokes start flying: La Sallites can’t read (loud applause from the Ateneo crowd), Ateneans can’t count (even louder applause from the La Salle crowd).

It's like the basketball game without the brass bands, enough to make you go "Wow, fans!”

At one point, Ateneans got a big laugh when Basilio tells Quito: “You have the word of a La Sallite" and Quito responds: "I'll take it anyway." Later, when Basilio actually gets to keep his word, the entire La Salle crowd went into hysterics I thought they would burst into tears.

The La Salle basketball team in the musical "Rivalry"

Still, the biggest applause for the play was for Noel Trinidad, who steals the show with his song about dead chickens and the history of the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry.

So is “Rivalry” worth your time? For the songs and performances, that’s a definite yes.

The ending though feels like a cop-out because it gets politically correct. In every rivalry, there must be a winner and it is here where the story takes the easy way out. (No spoilers here.)

Still, there’s a rich history to be mined in this rivalry that goes beyond the ball game. In the post-play press conference, musical director Gatchalian talked about the history of the play and how intense the rivalry was during his time, on how the girls would ogle the La Sallians who were all mestizos and the Ateneans would have to fight for attention.

This part of the rivalry can be seen many times in the play. But I also wondered if Gatchalian, del Mundo and Trinidad would actually do that musical on the Toyota-Crispa rivalry. Imagine: a singing Jaworski and a dancing El Presidente. Now that would be epic.