Best of 2023: Top plays, musicals, performances 2
2023 proved to be a banner year for Philippine theater as it made a vengeful comeback with major theater companies — and more — mounting productions that were embraced by cheering audiences.

Best of 2023: Top plays, musicals, performances

2023 proved to be a banner year for Philippine theater as it made a vengeful comeback with major theater companies — and more — mounting productions that were embraced by cheering audiences.
Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBN News | Jan 02 2024

Philippine theater successfully tested the waters in 2022 after being forced to shut down for more than two years by the pandemic. But just like many sectors from travel to concerts, 2023 proved to be a banner year as it made a vengeful comeback with major theater companies — and more — mounting productions that were embraced by cheering audiences.

While many chose to play it safe by bringing back surefire hits from Full House Theater Company’s wildly popular Eraserheads musical “Ang Huling El Bimbo” to Tanghalang Pilipino’s (TP) acclaimed “Ang Pag-uusig,” others who also chose this tack saw this as an opportunity to revisit their previous productions and rework them for a new generation of theatergoers, like 9 Works Theatrical’s “Tick, Tick, Boom,” Sandbox Collective’s “Lungs” and “Every Brilliant Thing,” and TP’s “Sandosenang Sapatos.”

Even companies that had been dormant before the pandemic made their presence felt in 2023 — Necessary Theater with its restaging of “Red,” Music Artes with the original Filipino musical “Silver Lining,” and Culturtain Musicat Productions with its star-studded concert version of “Larawan” at the Metropolitan Theater. 

Not even the international touring production of “Hamilton” (with Rachelle Ann Go, West End’s Eliza Hamilton, no less) dampened the enthusiasm of local theater companies — and the wallets of theatergoers — as they came up with efficient, intimate alternatives such as the two-character musical “The Last Five Years” from Barefoot Theatre Collective, which even enjoyed an extended run.

A scene from 'The Last Five Years.' May Celeste
A scene from 'The Last Five Years.' May Celeste

Such was the strong allure of theater in 2023 that pop singers and film and TV stars were enticed to make their stage debuts — from Kapamilya stars Piolo Pascual in “Ibarra” and KD Estrada and Alexa Ilacad in PETA’s “Walang Aray” to the rising Star Magic artists in “Tabing Ilog,” a pandemic casualty in 2020 that returned as a completely reworked musical.

Revenge theater also extended to key campuses — Ateneo Blue Rep cast theater stars Kim Molina and Phi Palmos in its ambitious if messy “Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah” — and even outside the metro like Cebu (“Steel Magnolias”) and Tagaytay (the productions at Guang Ming College).

And this appetite for theater is set to continue this year, with companies already announcing at least 20 productions for 2024, including new original Filipino musicals from Full House Theater Company, PETA, TP and Repertory Philippines. 

Since I didn’t do a best-of list for 2022, I included re-runs from last year for this yearender, and while I tried to watch as many productions as I could, there were several notable omissions like Philippine Stagers Foundation’s “Hero Z,” productions by Ateneo Entablado, Mint College, De La Salle University’s Harlequin Theatre Guild, Teatrong Mulat ng Pilipinas’ “The Little Prince” adaptation “Prinsipe Bahaghari” and Langgam Performance Troupe’s “Lord of the Flies” adaptation “Pangulong Bangaw.” I also deliberately excluded actors and directors returning to their roles in their restagings. 


A scene from 'Walang Aray.' PETA
A scene from 'Walang Aray.' PETA

1. Walang Aray

Prolific playwright Rody Vera’s modern take on Severino Reyes’ landmark zarzuela “Walang Sugat” isn’t just the year’s best production but also the best original Filipino musical since “Dekada ’70” back in 2018. 
When Alexa Ilacad as zarzuela star Julia declares, ‘I am the star of the show,’ you better believe it. Ilacad indeed brought her brand of star power to the production with her strong presence and robust vocals, although the best pairing still had to be Jon Abella and Shaira Opsimar, who added a certain dramatic fervor to the story and treated it more than just a riotous musical comedy.

Under the zany direction of Ian Sagarrra and featuring several catchy songs by Vince Lim, “Walang Aray” isn’t just a star vehicle for its three sets of leads as it also boasts PETA’s wackiest ensemble since “Rak of Aegis.”

With more than two months of performances (and even a re-run later in the year), “Walang Aray" is PETA at its entertaining best.

2. Anak Datu

Tanghalang Pilipino bravely emerged from the pandemic last year with this ambitious production written by Vera (again), who wove three distinct narratives — the titular short story by National Artist Abdulmari Imao, the Imao family’s story in the turbulent Martial Law years, and key events that shaped Mindanao’s history. 

While it undoubtedly left an indelible mark in 2022, winning several Gawad Buhay trophies, TP improved it further for the 2023 run, with Chris Millado’s tighter direction, a more confident Carlos Dala in the lead, and a deeply moving performance from stage veteran Gie Onida. 

Part drama and part history lesson, all told with graceful folk dancing, resplendent costumes, and engaging music, “Anak Datu" is a truly defiant, courageous work that openly declares that we will not be silenced.

3. The Reconciliation Dinner

Another winning production from 2022, Floy Quintos’ “The Reconciliation Dinner” painfully yet accurately captured the bitter divide brought about by politics in the country, a mere six months after the 2022 presidential elections, with emotional wounds still inflamed. It returned last year with two sold-out runs, the last one at the PETA Theater, which I thought was the definitive version of this play.

For the 2023 run, Quintos updated the timeframe to mark the first anniversary of Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s presidency and added new monologues which made this already potent play more balanced, with the resolution more realistic, less ambiguous and ultimately more heartbreaking in our desperate attempt to find a way out of the political quagmire we find ourselves in.

4. The Impossible Dream

2023 is definitely the year of the uber-talented playwright Guelan Varela-Luarca and this one-act play that imagines a fiery conversation between then-President Ferdinand Marcos and opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr. finds him at his disciplined best. Presented as part of the Melvin Lee-helmed “Kumprontasyon” along with two other short plays, “The Impossible Dream” taunts and triggers in its incendiary dissection of what ails Philippine politics.

5. Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol

This year’s Virgin Labfest truly lived up to its theme of “hitik” with its strongest line-up in years, led by this amazing work that heralds the arrival of a young talented playwright in Andrew Estacio, who boldly and ambitiously created a play about the making of a play that is about history, fact-checking, the political sponsorship of culture, the creative process in theater (and centered on a dramaturg, at that), and a glorious celebration of the kundiman — all presented with such clarity of vision by director Nazer Salcedo. Also hands-down, the best singing I’ve heard in VLF, plus a delicious performance from Adrienne Vergara.

 A scene from 'The Reconciliation Dinner.' Jeeves de Veyra
A scene from 'The Reconciliation Dinner.' Jeeves de Veyra

6. Red

Having already seen Bart Guingona as Mark Rothko in “Red” a decade ago, I still found myself rapt by John Logan’s brilliantly written play, this time staged in the more intimate PETA Theater. Here, everything works — the realistic set of an artist’s space, the shifting lighting design that truly reflects the play’s assertions on color and movement, and most importantly the stimulating energy of Guingona and JC Santos as they passionately ponder and argue about art and life.

7. Ardor

Playwright Guelan Varela-Luarca’s trilogy on Philippine dystopia starts with this piercing indictment of strongman rule before society descended into the total bleakness of “Nekropolis.” In a way, having Tangalang Ateneo stage this makes actual sense given the sense of youthful anger and idealism that propels “Ardor,” not to mention the play’s surprising but effective love triangle. Hopefully, Luarca delivers the final installment this year. 

8. Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba

Dulaang UP opened its latest season with this absolutely charming adaptation of Dean Francis Alfar’s children’s story “How Rosang Taba Won a Race,” a celebration of a woman’s clever determination to rise above historical oppression and societal biases, and told in a delectably theatrical manner by directors José Estrella, Issa Manalo Lopez and Mark Daniel Dalacat. 

9. Tabing Log

After its disappointing debut in 2020, which was also cut short by the pandemic, this stage musical adaptation of ABS-CBN’s iconic ‘90s teen series “Tabing Ilog” was totally overhauled for the Gen Z audience. But surprisingly it still evokes strong nostalgia with playwright Eljay Castro Deldoc’s simple ode to youth, Vincent de Jesus’s playful score, and the refreshing chemistry of the cast. 

10. The Last Five Years

I have seen two previous stagings of this heartbreaking musical, as well as the Hollywood movie version, but Barefoot Theatre Collective still managed to keep the material fresh. That’s because despite the musical’s unique structure (his story moves forward, while hers starts at the end) with the two leads alternating in the spotlight almost concert-style, director Topper Fabregas somehow made it feel less disjointed and more like a play. This is also the most beautifully sung version, firmly establishing Myke Salomon and Gab Pangilinan as local musical theater’s power couple. 


Bart Guingona and JC Santos in 'Red.' Jeeves de Veyra
Bart Guingona and JC Santos in 'Red.' Jeeves de Veyra

1. JC Santos in “Red”

Even before he found success on TV and in films, JC Santos already wanted to play Ken, the assistant of the artist Mark Rothko, in “Red.” Last year, he not only fulfilled his dream but showed why he is perfect for the part. Santos managed to elevate Ken to lead status without necessarily stealing the spotlight from Bart Guingona’s Rothko. It’s a difficult balancing act and Santos was the consummate “supporting” actor, helping guide audiences to develop a deeper understanding and appreciation for Rothko, while also asserting his own character whose narrative arc proved just as important. 

2. Gab Pangilinan in “The Last Five Years”

There are admittedly several outstanding renditions of “Still Hurting” on the internet from Lea Salonga to Ariana Grande, but there is more to Cathy Hiatt than that one song. And Gab Pangilinan captured the various facets of this struggling actress with both vocal and emotional clarity that we fully understand her frustrations and insecurities. Her thrilling “Climbing Uphill” was probably the best vocal performance in a musical for the entire year. 

3. Ron Capinding in “The Impossible Dream”

He has consistently given reliable performances in many productions at the Ateneo and even in Virgin Labfest, but last year Ron Capinding was given the role of a lifetime as then-President Ferdinand Marcos. Capinding bravely chose not to do yet another impersonation of Marcos (who had more than his fair share of impersonators, mostly in comedy revues) but instead highlighted his intellectual arrogance and hubris in this riveting imaginary political showdown with Benigno Aquino Jr. (played with surprising calm by Romnick Sarmenta). 

4. Shaira Opsimar in “Walang Aray”

She was the last Julia I saw in “Walang Aray” (after Alexa Ilacad and Marynor Madamesila), and watching her actually helped deepen my appreciation for this musical. Working in tandem with Jon Abella, Opsimar was able to bring out the nationalistic tenor of the musical in the most subtle of ways (a well timed teardrop, the smallest of hand gestures) without sacrificing the broad comedy that made “Walang Aray” so entertaining. 

5. Myke Salomon in “The Last Five Years”

Of all the winning elements Barefoot Theatre Collective brought to this Jason Robert Brown musical, the real game-changer was Myke Salomon’s interpretation of Jamie, who is often painted as the villain in this breakup. That’s because Jamie was usually portrayed as an ambitious alpha male lapping it up with his success. But with Salomon, we also see Jamie’s more vulnerable side, a guy who simply got lost as things moved too fast, as sensed in his regretful confessional “Nobody Needs to Know,” which matches “Still Hurting” on the heartbreak scale. 

 Jef Flores and Reb Atedero in 'Tick Tick Boom.' Jeeves de Veyra
Jef Flores and Reb Atedero in 'Tick Tick Boom.' Reine Bantang

6. Reb Atedero in “Lungs” and “Tick Tick Boom”

Reb Atedero last year showed us why he could well be the most consistent all-around actor of his generation with two winning performances in a straight play AND a musical. His sympathetic performance made M’s transgressions more heartbreaking than disappointing in “Lungs,” and in “Tick Tick Boom,” he was the ideal supportive pal which made Jon’s emotional tribute “Why” even more touching.

7. Shamaine Centenera Buencamino in “Sidhi’t Silakbo” and “Tuloy ang Palabas”

In 2023, we were reminded why Shamaine Centenera Buencamino is the revered star of local theater with two stellar performances — as a fading actress coming to terms with her dying art in colonial-era Manila in Layeta Bucoy’s gothic “Tuloy ang Palabas” for Virgin Labfest, while her sexually frank monologue as a modern-day Andromache turned Dulaang UP’s rather low-key women's tribute “Sidhi’t Silakbo” into a must-see.

8. Lhorvie Nuevo in “Anak Datu” and “Ang Pag-uusig”

Lhorvie Nuevo’s remarkable growth as an actress was in full display last year in two very different roles. Taking on her third character in TP’s “Ang Pag-uusig” as Elizabeth Proctor, she was the personification of quiet defiance as she stood by her persecuted husband in this acclaimed adaptation of “The Crucible.” She was even more outstanding in “Anak Datu,” where as the lead female dancer, she was still able to communicate a gamut of emotions through her expressive face and body movement.

9. Mikoy Morales in “Dick Talk”

Before he won best actor for the Cinemalaya entry “Tether,” Mikoy Morales was the brightest spot in the uneven “Dick Talk,” a sort of male version of “The Vagina Monologues.” As a metrosexual boxed in by society’s toxic ideas of masculinity, Morales was both funny and sad, as he tries in vain to assert his sexuality. 

10. Stella Canete-Mendoza and Frances Makil-Ignacio in “The Reconciliation Dinner”

While “The Reconciliation Dinner” is truly an ensemble piece with nary a false note, with the Medinas’ upper middle-class smugness clashing deliciously with the Valderramas’ over-sensitive outbursts, these two women whose close friendship becomes collateral damage in this political maelstrom ground the play into the personal, and gave it its emotional power. 

Honorable mentions: Gie Onida (“Anak Datu”), Joel Saracho ((“Dominador Gonzales: National Artist”), Katrine Sunga (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”), Anthony Rosaldo (“Ang Huling El Bimbo”), Alexa Ilacad (“Walang Aray”), Jon Abella (“Walang Aray”), Romnick Sarmenta (“The Impossible Dream”), Adrienne Vergara (“Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol”), Missy Maramara (“Uncle Jane”), Miah Canton (“Tabing Ilog” and “Rama Hari”), Vino Mabalot (“Tabing Ilog”), Phi Palmos (“Laro” and “The Reconciliation Dinner”), Randy Villarama (“The Reconciliation Dinner”) 


 A scene from 'Ardor.' Tanghalang Ateneo
A scene from 'Ardor.' Tanghalang Ateneo

Best Play (Original, Adaptation or Translation): Guelan Luarca (“The Impossible Dream,” “Ardor” and “Nekropolis”)

Honorable mentions: Floy Quintos (“The Reconciliation Dinner”), Rody Vera (“Anak Datu”), Andrew Estacio (“Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol”), Maynard Manansala (“Sidhi’t Silakbo”), Mikaela Regis (“Unica Hijas”), Dingdong Novenario (“Dominador Gonzales: National Artist”) 

Best Book of a Musical (Original, Adaptation or Translation): Rody Vera (“Walang Aray”)

Honorable mention: Eljay Castro Deldoc (“Tabing Ilog”)

Best Direction: Jose Estrella, Issa Manalo Lopez and Mark Daniel Dalacat (“Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba”)

Honorable mentions: Cris Millado (“Anak Datu”), Dexter Santos (“The Reconciliation Dinner”), Ian Sagarra (“Walang Aray”), Topper Fabregas (“The Last Five Years”), Melvin Lee (“Kumprontasyon”), Delphine Buencamino (“Room 209”), Nazer Salcedo (“Ang Awit ng Dalagang Marmol”), Nelsito Gomez (“Uncle Jane”)

Best Score: Vince Lim (“Walang Aray”) 

Honorable mentions: Vincent de Jesus (“Tabing Ilog”), Jack Teotico and Vince Lim (“Silver Lining”), Chino Toledo (“Anak Datu”)

Best Choreography: Hassanain Magarang (“Anak Datu”)

Honorable mentions: Stephen Vinas (“Sandosenang Sapatos” and “Tabing Ilog”), Gio Gahol (“Walang Aray”)

Best Musical Direction: Vincent de Jesus (“Tabing Ilog”)

Honorable mentions: Vince Lim (“Walang Aray” and “Silver Lining”), Chino Toledo (“Anak Datu”)

 A scene from 'Tabing Ilog.' Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News
A scene from 'Tabing Ilog.' Jonathan Cellona, ABS-CBN News

Best Set Design: Mark Daniel Dalacat (“Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba” and “Red”)

Honorable mentions: Toym Imao (“Anak Datu”), Ohm David (“Tabing Ilog”), Julio Garcia (“Walang Aray”), Mio Infante (“Tick Tick Boom”), Joey Mendoza (“The Last Five Years”)

Best Lighting Design: Gabo Tolentino (“Red”)

Honorable mentions: Katsch Catoy (“Anak Datu”), Barbie Tan-Tiongco (“Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba”), Meliton Roxas Jr. (“The Last Five Years”), D Cortezano (“Nekropolis”), David Esguerra (“Tabing Ilog”)

Best Costume Design: Marco Viana and Paw Castillo (“Sandosenang Sapatos”)

Honorable mentions: Carlos Pagunaling (“Anak Datu” and “Kung Paano Nanalo sa Karera si Rosang Taba”), JayLo Cunanan (“Walang Aray”)

Best Sound Design: Arvy Dimaculangan (“Nekropolis,” “The Reconciliation Dinner” and “Laro”)

Honorable mentions: TJ Ramos (“Anak Datu”), Vince Lim (“Walang Aray”), Carlos Hombrebueno (“Ardor”)

Best Video Projections: Joyce Garcia (“Nekropolis”)

Honorable mentions: Bene Manaois (“Tabing Ilog”), GA Fallarme (“Anak Datu”), Jana Jimenez (“Sidhi’t Silakbo”), Steven Tansiongco (“The Reconciliation Dinner”)

 A scene from 'Anak Datu.' Tanghalang Pilipino
A scene from 'Anak Datu.' Tanghalang Pilipino