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Home / Life! / Live / ‘On This Side of the World’ musical offers insight and entertainment

‘On This Side of the World’ musical offers insight and entertainment

by May Ruiz
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On This Side of the World,” an East West Players presentation, held its opening day at David Henry Hwang Theater on May 14. It is a joint creation of Paulo K. Tiról, who wrote the music and lyrics, and Noam Shapiro, who directed it. Featuring an ensemble of the most accomplished Filipino actors and performers in Southern California, this world premiere marks the first time a musical about Filipino immigrants written by one himself has been staged.

With a one-way ticket to the United States and a suitcase full of stories, a woman leaves her native Philippines and flies 8,491 miles across the Pacific Ocean to build a new life in New York. Her 17-hour journey, which begins when she boards a Philippine Airlines flight in Manila, is the subject of “On This Side of the World.”  

The cast performs ‘Ay! Amerika.’ | Photo by Jenny Graham / East West Players

In this musical, a woman replays each story collected from immigrants who came before her – tales of overseas workers, young lovers, and gossipy church ladies; snapshots of undocumented immigrants, millennial princesses, and first-generation Americans. Running approximately two-and-a-half hours that includes a 15-minute intermission, it offers its audience insight about Filipinos as it provides great entertainment.

While I am a Filipino immigrant, I’ve been in the United States for 41 years and four decades of those years as a Pasadena resident. In all that time, I haven’t visited my native country and I feel more Pasadenan than Manileña. But the show brought back a flood of memories of my years growing up in a Manila suburb.     

Michael C. Palma as Mr. Legarda performs ‘Proud’ with the cast. | Photo by Jenny Graham / East West Players

One of the songs – ‘Lantern in the Window’ – sung by Cassie Simone as Kayla, is about the lantern that’s unmistakably Filipino. We call it ‘parol’ and it hangs in every window at Christmas. As poor a country as the Philippines is, Filipinos live large at Christmastime and spend a lot of money buying presents. We also usher in the holidays way earlier than most. In the U. S., Christmas season starts the day after Thanksgiving; in the Philippines, all the malls have decorations up and Christmas songs are played in September!

Of all the Filipino traditions, it’s the Christmas midnight mass I miss the most. And I’m embarrassed to say that it isn’t because of the service, but the food. As children, my two sisters and I attended ‘simbang gabi’ during Christmas week because there would be food vendors selling an assortment of rice-based sweets we call ‘kakanin.’ The aroma emanating from the food stalls surrounding the church patio was more than a small distraction – we could think of nothing else but hurrying out as soon as the priest utters ‘Go in peace’ to have some ‘bibingka,’ ‘puto,’ ‘kutchinta,’ or ‘palitaw.’ Even now, I could practically smell and savor the scrumptious food! The festive spread that my mom would have laid out on the dining table after we got back from the Christmas eve mass, or ‘misa de gallo,’ is also something that’s not easily recreated in California. 

Cassie Simone as Dee-Dee (center) performs ‘Yaya’ with Zandi de Jesus (left) and Andrea Somera (right). | Photo by Jenny Graham / East West Players

The stories Tiról tells through the songs are faithful to all Filipino immigrants’ experiences and I will mention a few that stand out for me. Michael Palma’s ‘Cool Tito’ works tirelessly just so he can send money and ‘balikbayan’ boxes full of toys and the latest electronic gadgets and athletic shoes to nieces and nephews back home. He maxes out credit cards at Christmas to buy every item on the list. Never mind that he has to spend the next three months working double shift to pay off his debt and cover the finance charge it incurred.

‘Yaya’ reminds me of the shock many Filipinos feel when they first arrive in the United States and find out they have to do all the housework themselves. Cassie Simone’s portrayal as Dee-Dee, the brat who’s wailing for her ‘yaya,’ is quite hilarious.

The song ‘Ay! Amerika’ is as side-splittingly funny as it is a spot-on depiction of just how judgmental Filipinos can be. Maritess and Marivic, as portrayed by Zandi de Jesus and Cassie Simone, are models for the quintessential holier-than-thou women who gossip with glee about the ill-fated choices and misfortunes of people they knew from back home. They sing that such scandalous events can only happen in America. It’s a comical scene – the ensemble intones ‘wa-wa-wa-wa’ in prayer, and the audience when I watched the show chanted along. 

Steven-Adam Agdeppa as Miggy performs ‘Rice Queens.’ | Photo by Jenny Graham / East West Players

But the performance that brought the house down was Steven-Adam Agdeppa’s, ‘Rice Queens.’ The audience absolutely loved him as Miggy in drag and they demonstrated it clearly. They cheered and whistled. Someone even threw a dollar bill on the stage.                            

‘My Mother is an Immigrant,’ sung by Andrea Somera as Brianna, is a song that will reduce all mothers to tears. They will deeply connect with it. At the start of the song, Brianna bemoans that she doesn’t fit in at school because her mother is an immigrant; that her mother expects her to get excellent grades and makes her go to art classes and take piano lessons. And her mother thinks she’s extraordinary.

By the end of the song, Brianna is a fully grown adult and says she turned out to be ordinary. And, contrary to how she felt about her mom in the beginning, Brianna looks back with appreciation for her mother. She hopes to raise her future child with as much love as her mother has for her, that she now recognizes.

Coincidentally, my daughter’s name is also Brianna. And, while I wasn’t a tiger mom – a label that a lot of the Asian parents I know wear as a badge of honor – I admit my academic expectations when she was in school were ridiculous. I also thought she was extraordinary and now that she’s in her 20s I still think she’s a remarkable human being.

All the songs in “On This Side of the World” are noteworthy but ‘My Mother is an Immigrant’ speaks to me the most.

Andrea Somera as Brianna performs ‘My Mother is an Immigrant.’ | Photo by Jenny Graham /East West Players

I interviewed Tiról and Shapiro when they were just two weeks into rehearsal and they said work in a musical never ends, that it’s ongoing. In the story I wrote, the plane was bound for Los Angeles – a 14-hour flight and 8,000 miles from the Philippines. I don’t know if they decided on that final destination because the New York skyline, which they use as backdrop, is more impressive. Or maybe they thought that since the plane originated from Ninoy Aquino International Airport it’s only fitting that the destination in America be John F. Kennedy International instead of LAX. After all, the Philippine airport is named after a slain hero and icon so only a disembarkation site bearing the moniker of an assassinated American president will do.

But whatever and however they may have deviated from their initial idea, this iteration of “On This Side of the World” is a beautifully presented, well-thought-out production. The show reflects all that is good and admirable about Filipinos and Filipino immigrants, as well as the bad and disgraceful about us. The performers are superb actors and singers who can wow any audience – and when I watched it, the majority of those in attendance were non-Filipinos. But they were fully captivated and engaged throughout and indicated their approval with a rousing applause and an enthusiastic standing ovation at the end of the show.  

Tiról deserves acknowledgment and praise for blazing the trail for aspiring Filipino musical theatre writers and creators. To Shapiro we owe a debt of gratitude for taking a leap of faith when he helped Tiról get this dream project realized.   

The success of “On This Side of the World” can only advance the talents of Filipino performers who have, until now, mostly played insignificant roles in Hollywood films and Broadway shows. It can only give Tiról a foothold in the performing arts and make it easier for other Filipino playwrights to get their work staged. It can only pave the way for a more equitable future for all Asians in America.            

           

       

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