Nicco Manalo (center) leads the cast of “Kleptomaniacs.” Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com
MANILA – “Kleptomaniacs,” Tanghalang Pilipino’s ambitious, ripped-from-the-headlines original production that opened at the Cultural Center of the Philippines on Friday, has a lot of things going for it.
For one, it is touted as the first rap musical, inspired by the acclaimed work of popular Pinoy rapper Gloc-9, whose last two albums took local hip-hop to the next level, with socially conscious songs like “Sirena” and “Magda.”
Prolific playwright Layeta Bucoy took this pop inspiration to take another swipe at Philippine politics after her acclaimed “Walang Kukurap” and “Doc Ressureccion: Gagamutin ang Bayan.” In “Kleptomaniacs,” she focuses on how corruption affects the urban poor, as she pointedly illustrates that when our nation’s leaders take from the public coffers, they ultimately steal the simple dreams of the poor of having a better life.
“Kleptomaniacs” is set in an urban slum. When Tabo, a young tambay, gets his kolehiyala girlfriend, Vickie, pregnant, he vows to turn a new leaf to ensure a better tomorrow for his future family. But resigned to a life of poverty, the members of the community just laugh at him. Only Tabo’s young brother and friend Ngongo are supportive of his dream.
But Ngongo dies after earthquake hit the city, leaving Tabo and the rest of the slum dwellers shattered. Tabo finds an opportunity amid the destruction when the mayor asks him to provide him a list of people who deserve to get free housing. His honesty puts Tabo at odds with his own family and friends, only to realize that the housing project is just another means for their leaders to steal from the government.
With the pork barrel scam still raging in real life, “Kleptomaniacs” brings the anger in the streets to the stage using rap as its vehicle.
But Friday’s opening night has to belong to Nicco Manalo, the son of popular comedian Jose Manalo, who almost single-handedly made “Kleptomaniacs” work with a performance that perfectly captured the essence of Bucoy’s vision. As the uneducated and naive Tabo, Manalo gave an achingly earnest performance that provided this very angry musical its heart.
Unfortunately, this perfect performance comes at a high cost: Manalo, along with the amazing child discovery, Micko Laurente, as Tabo’s younger brother Butchoy, ring with so much authenticity that almost everyone else looked like, well, actors.
More importantly, Manalo and Laurente -- and to some extent, Thea Yrastorza as Vickie, and Ybes Bagadionh as the mysterious Peklat -- understood the cadence and rhythm of OPM rap. Even when spewing his lines without a backbeat, Manalo spoke with a discernible flow that gave justice to Bucoy’s rhymes. And he moved naturally as well, as you would expect from street dancers.
A scene from “Kleptomaniacs.” Photo by Vladimir Bunoan for ABS-CBNnews.com
The contrast between the leads and rest was jarring and this was the main problem of “Kleptomaniacs.” Rap is such a tricky musical genre; if not done properly, it is just plain awkward – and this was the case with several of the performers. The technical problems with the sound system on opening night further highlighted this weakness.
“Kleptomaniacs” certainly has a lot of potential to appeal to a wide audience given the accessible rap compositions by Jose Carlo Frio and Nina Virgin, although they could have added more radio-friendly melodies like the cute “Momol” and the potential hit “Remember.”
Bucoy’s libretto certainly connects with her blunt message and unflinching depiction of poverty, which was staged and designed with an in-your-face ferocity by Tuxqs Rutaquio.
Hopefully, the production as a whole will eventually live up to the material’s great potential as it runs for three weekends with a repeat already set for later this year. One or two star performances are definitely not enough.
“Kleptomaniacs” runs until July 27 at the CCP Little Theater.