A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Review: On This Side Of The World 

Composer and Lyricist:  Paulo K. Tirol
Director  :  Noam Shapiro
Music Director: Ian Miller
Choreographer:  Matt Bovee
Scenic Designer: Melanie May
Lighting Designer:  Ethan Olsen
Starring:  Albert Cuerzon, Joanne Javien, Jaycee Macapugay, Diane Pheln, Michael Protacio, Keven Scheuring 

NEW YORK CITY (MindaNews / 04 May) — New York’s Broadway and off-Broadway continue to lure theatre lovers all over the world to its rich repertoire of all genres of theatrical productions from the old reliable musical plays to experimental dramatic pieces.

After having hundreds of performances through decades, the likes of Chicago, Lion King, Hamilton, etc. are still selling tickets. The latest musical that has become a hit is Hadestown,  re-imagining of Greek mythology which is the musical bound to dominate the upcoming Tony awards. And there are a number of plays adapted from hit moves like To Kill a Mokingbird, Network and Bettlejuice.

Comes now a bold move on the part of a Filipino playwright (who also composes music) and an enterprising young American director to squeeze a gem of a musical play into this vast landscape of fabulous theatre. As heralded in various media, On This Side Of The World is “a collection of songs capturing voices from the Filipino immigrant experience in the United States. From an airplane somewhere over the Pacific to a 24-hour diner in New York, Paulo K Tiról’s wistful, joyous song cycle examines lives caught between two worlds. Stories of overseas workers, young lovers, and gossipy church ladies. Snapshots of undocumented immigrants, aspiring actors, and carefree millennials. What emerges is a mosaic of love and loss, humor and heartache, yearning and faith eight thousand miles from home.”

Paulo K. Tirol’s “On This Side Of The World “at Access Theater, New York. Visit https://www.accesstheater.com/ for details

The lyricist and composer is Paulo K. Tirol from Manila, now a migrant seeking his American dream to make a name in musical theatre.  A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston with a Masters in Fine Arts major in Musical Theatre and having attended NYU Tisch’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program, Tirol – whose father hails from Nabunturan in Compostela Valley, Mindanao – has started to make a name for himself in this particular field.

On This Side Of The World is his first major theatrical production. Noam Shapiro, who like Tirol is also a young man, is a New York-based director and the Producing Director of Three Hares, a company that produces political and socially engaged theatre. Their collaboration in this musical play promises to begin a long-term collaboration.  On the basis of the magic that they have been able to mount with his play, one can only hope that an audience will arise to appreciate the current and future products of their joint efforts.

Paulo K. Tirol (in plaid polo shirt) with cast of On This Side Of The World. Photo from Karl Gaspar’s FB page

On This Side Of The World is NOT your usual big-budgeted musical with elaborate sets and costumes with a huge cast in the mold of Les Miserables, the Phantom of the Opera or Evita. The Access Theatre – where it is now showing – is a Black Box with only 60 available seats. The set is minimalist, constituted only by balikbayan boxes. The costumes are contemporary and one can hardly detect the make-up on the actors’ faces. And there are only six actors and four musicians.

However, through the interplay of music and poetry, lights and sounds and the capacity of the actors to dig deep into the audience’s emotions, at the end of the play the audience rewards cast and crew with a standing ovation with sustained, loud clapping.

The accolade is well-earned because the evening’s theatrical experience touched hearts while puncturing the deep recesses of memories which either made the audience laugh at one moment and shed tears shortly after.  On This Side Of The World is a masterpiece and one hopes it can draw Filipinos and non-Filipinos  – on this side of the planet as well as the other side – wherever the play is mounted.

There is no question that the issue of migration has become a global phenomenon resulting in politicians’ move to the right with one of them dreaming to build a huge wall, conflicts among citizens as some segments turning paranoid because of the tragic events surrounding terrorist acts and heartaches for thousands of families dislocated and not welcomed in safe havens. All around the world, playwrights, novelists, filmmakers have pursued real-life stories of how ordinary folks cope with the travails of leaving the safety of their homes to seek greener pastures.

Filipinos who migrate for various reasons to all corners of the world have their share of these stories.  Migration to the USA goes back to the early years of American colonization with our men migrating to Hawaii as plantation workers. Carlos Bulosan’s novel, America is in the Heart, remains the classic work to tell the heartbreaking story of a poor Filipino migrant in “the land of the free and home of the brave.”

Karl Gaspar (L) with Paulo K. Tirol, composer and lyricist of “On This Side Of The World” musical in New York’s Access Theater. Photo from Karl Gaspar’s FB page

On This Side Of The World does not provide a similar gritty and oppressive landscape. Tirol provides a different context and he does not take it upon himself to be a wild prophet denouncing the injustices arising out of this phenomenon.

However, by following another track – using humor and a bit of satire – Tirol still manages to convey the heart’s fears of what lies ahead as well as deep longings for home while seeking to find comfort and security in the adopted land. The title of the songs – which are mounted as vignettes where the cast takes on various roles – including One Way Ticket, The Language Lesson, Ay Amerika, Yaya and My Mother is an Immigrant manifest the playwright’s own fears and longings. While perhaps the Pinoy in the audience could easily resonate with the life experiences detailed in songs such as In the Kitchen (a tribute to Lolas), Lantern in the Window (reminder of the power of Christmas lanterns) and Light of the Home (mothers taking care of other people’s children), the emotions elicited by the vignettes do have universal echoes. Tirol writes his lyrics in English to make sure the non-Filipinos can see the parallels between us and them.

Tirol and Shapiro are served well by the six actors, namely Albert Guerzon (who appeared in Escape to Margaritaville, Honeymoon in Vegas, Mamma Mia!, Ghost the Musical), Jaygee Macapugay (Wild Goose Dreams, School of Rock, Here Lies Love), Diane Phelan (School of Rock, The King and I), Joanne Javien (Thoroughly Modern Millie, First National Tour), Kevin Schuering (The King and I, Lincoln Center National Tour), and Michael Protacio (Out of the Eclipse” and 54 Below).

One could tell by the credits after their names, that the members of the cast are well selected after auditions. Except for one, all are Filipino-Americans. This only shows that it is not only the likes of Leah Salonga and the few who came after their breakthrough performances in Miss Saigon, that Pinoy actors are making waves in Broadway. Owing to its unique format, On This Side Of The World demands a group of actors who can take on multiple roles and have excellent voices as most of their lines are sung. Not one among the six was a source of disappointment. Individually and collectively they shone on stage.

I came to New York this past week hoping to catch at least one Broadway play. While I did desire to watch Hamilton or Hadestown, it was a miracle in itself that, instead,  I was able to watch On This Side Of The World.

[Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw).]