‘Tabing Ilog: The Musical’ — A straightforward adaptation of youth TV series

Full disclosure: I didn’t watch the Tabing Ilog TV series, but I know the premise — a barkada of youngsters at the cusp of adulthood experiencing the joys, pains, challenges and the in-betweens of life, love, family and friendship. It’s basically the same for any and every other youth-oriented show at the time. The only different element was the titular river setting.

Tabing Ilog has been turned into a brand-new musical with music by Vince De Jesus and direction by Phil Noble (at the Peta Theater Center until 10 December), and I went into the show with only a general idea of what to expect: a feel-good, nostalgic trip down memory lane to that time in one’s youth as seen through the prism of middle life.

At least that’s what I thought it should be. I reckoned it’s what the TV show’s fans, presumably the adaptation’s core target audience, might be expecting, too: a piece that speaks to their present by taking them back to their past.

Teatro Kapamilya, the makers of Tabing Ilog: The Musical apparently had something else in mind, however — something simpler: a straightforward stage adaptation, one sprinkled with songs.

The show, which tells about a reunion of the barkada over one summer, is quite faithful to the source. The script (by playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc) often feels like it was written for the small screen, playing out more like the one-off live TV specials of classic Disney films such as Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella than the more textured, layered and well-considered works of veteran award-winning theater group PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association), which line-produced Tabing Ilog: The Musical for ABS-CBN as represented by its talent arm, Star Magic.

Real theater magic

Not that the show doesn’t have its moments of real theater magic. Most of them involve the characters of Corrine and Fonzy, played on TV by Desiree del Valle and Baron Geisler, respectively. As the most conflicted and troubled characters in the story — she a young lady with a promiscuous image who may or may not be actually pregnant, he a short-tempered drunkard and the “dark horse” in the barkada — the siblings in the musical locate the bruised heart of the piece and lend this Tabing Ilog its burnished grandeur.

Their confrontation scene and subsequent reconciliation, powered by the heartfelt performances of Miah Canton and Vino Mabalot (during the technical dress rehearsal we saw), are genuinely lump-in-throat moving. Mabalot, who has a spoken word poet’s skill for delivering some of his lines set to music, also nails his solo scene by the river, aided by the impressive lighting and visual projection design.

The show’s highlights also include an imaginatively written and staged birthday scene and the centerpiece scene set to the iconic theme song from the movie that captures the wistfulness that should have permeated the entire show.

Tabing Ilog: The Musical is a mostly pleasant, if only intermittently engaging watch as it is. It’s telling when many of the comedy bits that really land to uproarious audience reaction are sponsored brand intrusions, and the dramatic parts that stick are almost exclusively the domain of characters largely considered as support.

If only the makers let the more experienced theater veterans row this boat and navigate this river that’s awash with so much possibility. But it’s only the early days for the production, so this freshly minted musical may yet be able to ripple out more fully in the weeks to come.