Ibang-ibang Ibarra! Find out how foray into musical theatre changed Piolo’s life

By Ces Oreña-Drilon

Piolo Pascual, one of the most popular Philippine actors of all time, will be showing a different side of himself when the musical “Ibarra” opens on June 8 at the GSIS Theater.

Papa P, as he’s fondly called, plays the lead role of Crisostomo Ibarra in the musical, which is an adaptation of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. It’s his first foray into musical theatre in his three-decade long career.

Piolo as Ibarra. He told his cast-mates at the start of rehearsals, “I’m a baby. It’s a big task to fill in, it’s Ibarra, it’s Noli Me Tangere.”

Bilyonaryo got up close and personal with Papa P when he gave a sneak peek of the musical, where he also regaled the select audience with 17 songs. He said he signed up for “Ibarra” without knowing how much he will be paid.

Ces Drilon with Papa P right after a special preview of the musical Ibarra. “I would always draw energy from the crowd it’s a positive energy, instead of being worried or nervous I had to concentrate because I had a lot of lines, I had a lot of songs and I had to be focused.”

Ibarra bids farewell to Maria Clara played by soprano Myramae Meneses in this scene from the musical ‘Ibarra’.

“I actually found out how much I was gonna get paid last week. When I took (Ibarra) on, I said it’s not for the money. I can always earn my money elsewhere. But (a musical) is really something I’ve always wanted to do,” said Papa P, a co-founder of Spring Films, the production company behind the sleeper hit, Kita Kita.

From earning eight figures for a single film, Papa P received P500 per day of rehearsal for “Ibarra,” just like other members of the cast. But he didn’t mind getting a small allowance at all. He was even more motivated to train, showing on time for rehearsals and voice coaching sessions.

Papa P’s physique has become leaner and more chiseled thanks to the months-long preparation for the musical, which is produced by Tanghalang Una Obra. He hasn’t touched a drop of alcohol for a month.

Piolo sings 90% of his lines in the musical. 

Piolo brings star power to the musical theatre. Of the 37 songs in the musical, 17 are sung by him. ‘Ibarra’ opens today and will run until June 18.

“I’ve been sober for a month. I had to sleep early, I woke up early, and I trained everyday. There was even a time I lost my voice because I kept asking if I could have my vocal coaches everyday to teach me the right placement until such a point that I lost my voice, I couldn’t sing for a week,” Papa P shares.

“After that, I started to experiment to know where to get my voice and how to place it. That’s important because we’ll be doing five straight shows every week. So since last week, I’ve been doing a lot of runs every day, in the afternoon and evening just to test my capacity. It was okay, I was able to not feel the tension unlike in the previous weeks I would literally lose my voice,” he adds.

Papa P said he had to unlearn the singing technique he was used to for television, which he described as “too pop.”

“My vocal coaches, who are both opera singers, taught me a lot about where to get my voice from: the head, the diaphragm, the back, the chest. Everywhere! So I was like, ‘My gosh!’ But I know I can use what I’ve learned from my training here. Theater entails a different kind of discipline. You can’t stay up late. You have to nourish your voice and that’s what I did,” he says.

Piolo’s duets with Kevin Posadas who plays Elias are powerful and moving.

The intense training in musical theatre has expanded Papa P’s vocal range, though he would be the first to say he’s still far from reaching the level of some of his colleagues in the musical, who were trained in opera. His duets with Kevin Posadas, who played Elias, were especially moving. He’s visibly immersed in character when he sings the lines, “huwag mong kalimutan, kaming nasawi sa dilim ng gabi.”

Papa P says he’s fallen in love with the character he plays and the process of becoming Ibarra.

“From that point until the end I was telling Giselle (Piolo’s road manager), ‘naiiyak ako, naiiyak ako’ because of the burst of energy and emotion. So same with TV acting. I couldn’t get it off my chest so I said, ‘Okay, I’ll just cry.’ That’s the fun part of it. You become the character and you embrace the process,” he shares.

Papa P is counting down the days to “Ibarra’s” opening night. “We haven’t really opened but it feels like we’ve done this a million times,” he muses, adding that he’s enjoying every moment of his time in the theater.

Sisa was played by Nicole Laurel Asensio, granddaughter of two greats in Philippine theater – Celia Diaz Laurel and Fides Cuyugan Asensio who played Sisa while pregnant with Nicole’s father who was subsequently named Noli.

Doña Victorina is played by Carla Guevara Laforteza. 

His excitement was a far cry from the jitters he felt when he accepted the role of Ibarra.

“It was definitely a risk. When I saw the script after saying yes to the musical, I asked, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’ I had to take sleeping pills because my anxiety caused me sleepless nights. I kept on asking myself, ‘Ano ba ‘tong napasok ko, kaya ko ba ito?’ But now, I’m just excited. I never thought I could actually do a musical but it’s happening!” Papa P shares.

Jon Joven Uy essays the role of Pilosopo Tasyo.  Uy performed the role of Thuy in the staging of Miss Saigon in Germany. 

The historical significance of his role as Ibarra and its relevance in modern times isn’t lost on Papa P.

“Of course we all know that Ibarra is the alter ego of Rizal and then mirrored through Elias’ character and Pilosopo Tasio, so there are a lot of things that enabled me to relate to what is happening right now. That’s why I always look at the audience. I try to make them understand what I am saying because it’s a vicious cycle: this oppression, this kind of (poor) treatment. We want to educate the people who watch the musical to make them realize the state that we are in. More than a hundred years have passed and yet we are still here,” he says.

Papa P says he wants to connect in particular with Gen Z viewers.

“Yesterday, I invited my nieces and nephews to watch because I want them to realize the power of their voices. That’s the kind of message I want to send to the audience: That our history is valuable and we can learn from it to change the way things are. At the end of the day, you don’t want to be political, but hopefully you touch the viewers and make them realize that we can do something about what’s happening in the country,” he says.

On the eve of Ibarra’s opening night, Papa P says he went to Intramuros to retrace Rizal’s steps. “I really want to immerse myself, be reminded of our history.”

Theater has made a deep impact on Papa P, whose calendar is bursting with showbiz commitments. He cites discipline and commitment in rehearsals and performance as among the valuable lessons he has taken to heart.

“TV and film are easier because you go on and off [during shooting]. But this musical will be running for three hours. That means you have to be in character the whole time. Not only do you have to be prepared and have your lines memorized, but you have to be ‘in the moment’ the entire time you’re on stage,” he says.

Papa P says his vocal training for musical theater will also serve him well during the concerts he has scheduled for 2023. “I’m doing a lot of tours this year so I’m not going to stop doing my voice lessons.”

10 days of performance mark the country’s 125th year of independence. For Piolo, freedom means, “being able to live on your own terms, for your voice to be heard. To be able to act freely say anything have your voice be heard. When you say independence your voice is important. What you say is important.”

“Ibarra” will run from June 8 to June 18. The musical was written in 1979 by playwright Jomar Fleras with the title, “Kanser.” It holds the distinction of being the longest running play in Philippine history. 2023 marks the 40th year that the acclaimed play has been staged.

Franniel Zamora is the director while Joed Balsamo is the composer and musical director. The Manila Symphony Orchestra will provide live accompaniment.

Tickets to “Ibarra” are available here:

https://premier.ticketworld.com.ph/shows/show.aspx?sh=IBARRA23

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