Philippine theater

REVIEW: Why ‘Bar Boys’ is this year’s most affecting theater so far

Jason Tan Liwag

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REVIEW: Why ‘Bar Boys’ is this year’s most affecting theater so far

BAR BOYS. Alex Diaz plays Chris Carlson, Jerom Canlas plays Torran Garcia.

Kyle Venturillo

With its stellar senior cast, Barefoot Collaborative’s ‘Bar Boys’ depicts the gamification of the justice system and challenges the paradigm and rewards for being good

When Barefoot Theater Collaborative first announced it was adapting Bar Boys into a musical, I admit that I was hesitant. Premiering at the Pista ng Pelikulang Pilipino in 2017, Kip Oebanda’s sophomore feature was charming enough and starred a handsome quartet of actors trying to make it into and through law school.

But despite its Gawad Urian and FAMAS nominations, it was littered with problems too difficult to ignore—poorly rendered conflicts, threadbare characterizations, and an indistinct directorial and audiovisual language. Film critic Gerald Cajayon’s 2018 review on Letterboxd eloquently articulates the film’s central sin: “Kahit palitan ng medicine, engineering, or almost any other course ‘yung subject ng film, walang magbabago sa overall narrative nito. […] Para sa isang film about law school, wala siyang pangil na kuwestiyonin ang status quo.

Not all films make for great musicals. But I’ve found that middling movies often offer better starting points. Sometimes, it’s a matter of extending the charms of its central character to the rest of the ensemble—such as in Sara Bareilles’ adaptation of Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress (2007). Other times, it’s about rearranging the genre elements to make the material’s tone less confusing—as in Pasek and Paul’s adaptation of Nancy Savoca’s Dogfight (1991). At its worst, when a film has a titanic reputation, say Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, there is pressure to replicate a scene or an actor’s characterization or line delivery because the material is outsized by its legacy. With middling titles, experimentation and innovation are incentivized. Internal monologues can become memorable ballads and mundane moments, high-octane dance numbers. In other words, faithfulness to the source material hasn’t become the main success indicator, nor is the art judged against the mold of its past.

Writer-director Pat Valera, with the help of co-director Mikko Angeles, has managed to create a fine theater production from Oebanda’s Bar Boys. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Valera has successfully adapted Edmund Rostund’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ‘70 into critical and commercial juggernauts in local musical theater. But here, he builds on Oebanda’s premise and barkadahan, trims away many unnecessary or problematic elements, and points everything towards broader and deeper questions about how and why the justice system is gamified.

People, Person, Adult
Alex Diaz plays Chris Carlson, Jerom Canlas plays Torran Garcia. Photo by Kyle Venturillo

This gamification seeps into every aspect of the staging and is apparent even before the first number, May Singil Ang Pangarap, introduces us to each of the leads. Set designer Ohm David creates a traverse stage with two chalk-white Greecian pillars supporting LED screens, the head of Lady Justice hanging on one end while a scepter hangs on another. Bene Manaois uses 8-bit images to visualize locations and create video projections that parallel Myke Salomon’s original music. By the second song, Place to Land, all four young men—the affluent idealist Chris (Alex Diaz), the provincial patapon Josh (Omar Uddin), closeted achiever Torran (Jerom Canlas), and the quiet realist Erik (Benedix Ramos)—trade in Mobile Legends for the game of life, making a pact in front of the Supreme Court to enter law school together and exit without losing themselves or each other.

What follows is a slow crawl through graduate school. Through four sequential numbers, the first act captures how the initial desire to learn (Read The Law and We The Sovereign People) erodes through fear of failure (Terror in Latin/Reason Shall Be By Guide) and is transmogrified into grade consciousness instead (Uno, Dos, Tres, Singko). Kakki Teodoro and Carlon Matobato become a revolving door of characters that strike fear in law students, providing levity to the audience when needed. While at times busy, Jomelle Era designs movement that seems to dilate time, creating a rhythm and cyclicality to persistent pain and temporary pleasure, building up slowly to Bilis Bagal, where knots of students attempt to climb each other in a desperate bid for an A.

Everyone gets their fair share of rude awakenings: Josh, unable to withstand the pace of the legal system and the inequities revealed to him by his education, abandons his pact and lives a peaceful life in Siargao as a musician instead. On the other hand, Torran is forced to confront his sexuality after meeting the headstrong Atty. Victor (Topper Fabregas), which only exacerbates his anxieties about living up to his parents’ expectations. Meanwhile, Chris is haunted by the spectre of his father Atty. Carlson (Nor Domingo), a fixture of corruption in the country, whose dealings create stains in his own life too hard to remove.

Apart from Teodoro and Matobato, Bar Boys features a stellar senior cast: Gimbey Dela Cruz becomes a picture of comfort as Torran’s mother, while Topper Fabregas veers away from the film’s perverted rendering of the gay professor stereotype, instead embodying the ultimate professional aware of such optics. Sheila Francisco’s Justice Hernandez rips into the story with Dear Future Lawyers—a song warning that good intentions aren’t enough; that grit and a moral compass is needed to survive the process. Francisco eats up every scene and her presence provides the production of its north star in Tunay Na Tao.

Sheila Francisco plays Justice Hernandez. Photo by Kyle Venturillo

But Valera’s most intelligent decision is making Erik and his father Paping (Juliene Mendoza) the narrative’s heart. In the production’s third scene, Erik returns to his rundown home, hoping to inform Paping of his admission but his desire to work instead. But when Paping bursts at the seams and begins calling him “attorney,” something shifts both in Erik and the audience. It’s a moment so simply rendered, so pure a gesture of unconditional love, that one can’t help but weep.

Mendoza and Ramos are responsible for some of the production’s best moments. When Paping speaks of his wife and sings of the zarzuela that united them (Karapat-Dapat Ka), the production opens up emotionally, conjuring the past like Anastasia’s Once Upon a December. Though Erik and Paping’s financial struggles are ever-present, Valera and Angeles don’t allow the characters to wallow in suffering, emphasizing instead their persistence. So when the narrative becomes a story about the family’s search for justice after a factory accident risks Paping’s well-being, law begins to have a tangible stake in the lives of everyone in the story.

The trio’s premature initiation into the legal system reveals the murky ethics of the structures that wait for them outside of law school. Chris and Erik slowly switch ideologies as they connect to the larger socio-political struggles within their socioeconomic class. Valera and Angeles don’t necessarily make a case to trust the legal system itself—depicting how atrocities exist because the elite view justice not as absolute but as something to be negotiated and bargained, forcing the marginalized and oppressed to settle for something less in their inability to wait. But crucially, Bar Boys presents us with the reality that there are those whose goodness remains intact.

Dancing, Leisure Activities, Person
Omar Uddin plays Josh Zuniga, Benedix Ramos plays Erik Vicencio. Photo by Kyle Venturillo

Only towards its conclusion does Bar Boys solidify its critique of gamification through an encounter between Justice Hernandez and Erik, whose father’s death after losing the legal battle leads him to throw his chances at the bar and abandon his dreams altogether (Lakompake). Hernandez urges Erik to see beyond the system that divides humans into winners and losers, arguing that fortitude is goodness’ greatest asset. Francisco’s warmth in this scene is overwhelming and it envelops Ramos and forces him, and us as viewers, to be moved out of his emotional cul de sac.

Bar Boys is hardly perfect. It still is overstuffed and unbalanced at times. Valera and Angeles struggle to move beyond metaphor, with its book scenes and musical sequences varying in quality and clarity, unsure of whether to prioritize spectacle or groundedness. Most notably, the involvement of fraternities is only a narrative footnote. But as evidenced by the film’s mishandling, it’s hard to explore the topic without being subsumed by it. 

Apart from a handful of bangers, it’s hard to tell whether Salomon’s original music—his first after a decade of wildly successful jukebox musicals—simply lacks the leitmotifs and tiny details that make musicals earworms or if its aural experience and sonic imprint is simply swallowed by the atrocious acoustics in the Power Mac Center Spotlight. Arnold Jallores’ sound engineering isn’t able to reel this in, resulting in music and dialogue that sounds as if it’s in a fish tank or at its worst, ear-screeching painful to listen to.

Still, in the last three years, Barefoot Theater Collaborative has positioned itself as one of Manila’s most valuable theater production companies and with it comes a responsibility to put its audiences first. With Bar Boys, it has solidified and communicated its niche and the vision of theater it hopes to propagate: one that encourages its audience to be optimistic despite the circumstances; that dares to inspire hope despite the ever-present crisis of the human spirit. If it pursues this ambition with the verve, intelligence, and care by which it creates its theater and prioritizes the welfare of its cast and viewers, then we will be in good hands. –

Barefoot Theater Collaborative’s ‘Bar Boys’ had their last show on Sunday, May 19 at the Power Mac Center Spotlight.

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Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.