Peta stages 'Skin Deep,' musical about beauty obssession

Skin, voices, melodies 
By Walter Ang
Jan. 28, 2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

"Write a funny musical on beauty," was the instruction that Philippine Educational Theater Association (Peta) Artistic Director Maribel Legarda laid down for Vince de Jesus.

Known to theater audiences more as a lyricist, composer, musical arranger and musical director rather than a playwright, De Jesus was challenged by the directive. "When you talk about beauty as a topic, the scope is so huge," he says. After reviewing the other plays that had been performed for Peta's current season, he began to focus the issues he wanted to write about.

"We've had two productions for our 40th season. Walang Himala was about discovering the effects of People Power and Batang Rizal was about finding the hero within the child. I wanted my play to be about discovering your inner self," he says.

De Jesus eventually crafted "Skin-Deep," a story about an internationally famous balikbayan cosmetic surgeon who opens "the world's first one-stop beauty resort here in the Philippines - the Skin-Deep Sancutary!" For its grand opening promo, seven lucky texters win a chance to stay at the resort for a month and avail of all the beauty treatments, procedures and surgeries it has to offer for free.

The winners include "An obese female call-center agent, a troubled married couple, a male model wannabe, a flamboyant florist, an abused housewife burned beyond recognition and the reigning Miss Artificial Beauty," he lists. "The musical revolves around their struggles. How they go through different procedures hoping to become more aesthetically acceptable to the cruel world."

Inner beauty
"I'm not an expert on beauty, but I do know we all have our little indulgences. I get my facials and diamond peels from time to time," he says. "The question here is, to what extent should you go for outer beauty? I called a popular aesthetic center to ask how much butt implants cost. They told me it cost P120,000! I asked for a discount and if it's possible for me to pay only P60,000. They said it was possible, but I would only get an implant on one cheek," he laughs.

He qualifies that his musical "is not a complete attack on the cosmetic surgery industry. After all `walang manloloko kung walang magpapaloko.'" De Jesus does not hide the fact that he actually underwent a bit of cosmetic surgery himself (acne scar reduction) to immerse himself in the milieu of his musical.

"My point is, if you get a procedure done, you should know why you are getting it." De Jesus waxes philosophical on the effects of "media, advertising and companies who aggressively sell their products. Why are we being told that we are ugly if we have dark skin, a flat nose, no boobs or are chubby? Why do the white skinned girls get the boyfriend?"

De Jesus began to play the piano in the second grade and eventually joined Peta's Metropolitan Teen Theater League in high school where he was able to merge his love for music with the performing arts. He soon decided to devote all his energies to creating music and lyrics not just for theater but for television, film and events as well.

One of this notable works is the libretto and music for the staged version of Tanghalang Pilipino's "Himala," which was recently shown in Shanghai, China for the Asian Contemporary Theater Festival. "I'm a crammer!" he laughs when asked about how he creates music. "I go to the beach, I go to the mall. I tell my collaborators that relaxing my nerves is part of the process. For Himala, I did the music only a few days before the first rehearsal!"

He points out that when he is the composer for a show, he has the leeway to adjust and modify the music during rehearsals. However, since he is only the librettist for Skin-Deep and would not have that kind of control over the music, he had prepared a first draft by July of last year. He was assisted in his efforts by the Writers' Bloc, an organization of established and aspiring playwrights, headed by Rody Vera and whose membership included the late multi-awarded playwright Rene Villanueva.

"They [Villanueva and Vera] would encourage me to make the script tougher, to make more of a statement." he recounts. After going through twelve major revisions, the play eventually came together with certain inspirations. "I wanted to evoke `Willy Wonka' and `A Chorus Line.' The ending started out simply as a bittersweet ending, but now it has become dark and open-ended. These people were not perfect when they went in the Skin-Deep Sanctuary, but they will leave more broken than when they entered."

The musical will be directed by Nor Domingo with music by Lucien Letaba, arranged by Melvin Corpin. Costume design is by Kalila Aguilos, choreography by Christine Crame-Santillan and Leo Abaya will design a "a high-tech, futuristic, magical set lighted by Jonjon Villareal," says De Jesus.

Bringing his characters to life are well-known theater luminaries such as pop R&B singer Bituin Escalante, husband and wife team Robert Seña and Isay Alvarez (both alumni of Miss Saigon, West End and Manila casts), and fresh from portraying the lead role in "Himala," May Bayot-de Castro, whom theater aficionados would love to see perform with her sister Lani Misalucha in a musical one day. Other featured actors in the cast members of Kalinangan Ensemble, Peta's resident group of actors.

"As far as I know, no one has made a musical about this topic. There are really so many factors and issues embedded in it: economic, political, cultural, gender issues, sexual politics, body politics, it goes on and on," says De Jesus. "In the end, these characters are archetypes but the audience will definitely be able to relate. We can all relate to being judged, being ugly and, ultimately, surviving scars."

Skin-Deep runs from Feb. 1 to March 9 at the PETA-Phinma Theater (5 Eymard Drive, New Manila, Quezon City. Behind Quezon City Sports Club). Call 725-6244 or 410-0821.

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