Taking on Bembol Roco’s breakthrough role


CALL it destiny. The elements of the universe must have conspired to make rising musical theater actor Arman Ferrer the final choice to play Julio Madiaga in the musical adaptation of Lino Brocka’s Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag, from the original screenplay of Clodualdo del Mundo, based on the novel In the Claws of Brightness by Edgardo Reyes.

No one has the right to regard himself as a film buff if he doesn’t know the place this 1975 Brocka classic occupies in the local film pantheon. It was the breakthrough role of esteemed actor Bembol Roco, which instantly catapulted him in the A-list category only a few actors were part of at the time.

Prior to being officially announced as the actor to play the doomed hero Madiaga, there were other names previously tapped, among them pop singers Michael Pangilinan and Sam Concepcion. The two, however, begged off from the play for their respective personal reasons.

Ferrer’s bagging the coveted role bears similarities with how Roco, a showbiz novice in 1974, won the part in the original film version. The late Jay Ilagan, a Brocka protégé, had already shot some scenes but Brocka grew dissatisfied with Ilagan’s healthy appearance, which did not suit the director’s vision of his protagonist, a probinsiyano who becomes a vagrant in jungle called Manila. Ilagan was eventually replaced by Roco who, prior to this big break, had only appeared in a small role in the Brocka trilogy Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa.

The profile for the La Biennale di Venezia (Venice International Film Festival) web site writes of Roco’s performance: “Roco plays Julio with every nerve in his body alive, aware, straining to be unleashed. Catching sight of him for the first time onscreen, you draw back, troubled by the animal fear in his eyes, then, at the same time, you’re drawn in by their liquid sensitivity.” The young lyric tenor that is Arman Ferrer certainly is aware he has really big shoes to fill.

He will be paired with Lara Maigue, who will take on the role of Ligaya Paraiso, originally played by Hilda Koronel.

Ferrer is one of local theater’s emerging stars, having played Temyong, the hero who becomes a revolutionary in the Severino Reyes iconic zarzuela Walang Sugat, and the young Jose Rizal in the straightforward play The Love of Leonor Rivera by Severino Montano, which was directed by Naty Crame-Rogers.

He was last seen playing Emilio Aguinaldo in Nicanor Tiongson and Jed Balsamo’s critically acclaimed musical Mabining Mandirigma, which won him the Philstage Gawad Buhay 2015 award for Best Featured Male in a Musical. Ferrer is a classical singer and a choral conductor.

The young singer-actor is fully aware that this prized role he got himself into poses a whole new, different challenge. In the musical, Ferrer has to dance and polish his every movement under the close watch of choreographer Douglas Nierras. “Dancing isn’t really my forte,” Ferrer admitted.

He has also been observing how construction workers speak and move about. In the story, the lead character comes to work as a construction worker in the big city.

Being a city boy all his life, Ferrer has to morph into a provincial lad who loses his innocence amid the squalor and corruption in Manila.

“Everything that I take for granted in Manila is all so new to Julio. The challenge is how I would see things if I’m not from here, and I’m seeing all these for the first time and realize that Manila is not a paradise after all,” he shared.

The young man is elated to having been given one lead role after another, but he’s aware of the responsibility these big roles entail. “Sometimes when you think of the perks of being the lead actor, you realize that everything goes beyond that. What I really want in life, or my career for that matter, is that I come to terms with the learnings, with what I can treasure from every experience.”

He doesn’t mind that he was not the first choice for the coveted role.  “What’s more important is that I get to play the role.  It landed on my lap.  I was the one who seized the opportunity. I was the one who took on the challenge.”

Ferrer is quick to say, however, that as cliche as it sounds, his only competition is himself. “There’s always someone better than you. Be happy with what you have. Be happy with yourself, who you are and what you can be. And that’s not always easy.”

Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag The Musical is directed by Joel Lamangan for Grand Leisure Corp. The performances are scheduled on September 30, October 1, 4, 5 and 6 at the Kia Theater in Quezon City.

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