In playing the rags-to-riches Dorina Pineda in the upcoming stage adaptation of Bituing Walang Ningning, Monica Cuenco might as well be playing the lead in her own biopic. During the news conference for the upcoming theater production, she stood against a backdrop of stars and the prelude to the iconic titular theme song, made famous by the young Sharon Cuneta, began to play. In a moment, Monica began to sing—her voice trembling, her eyes moist. The song, in her rendition, didn’t lament the story of the character as much as it lamented her own.
Monica emerged from the faceless sea of hopefuls who had auditioned for the role in Nerissa Cabral komiks classic. Now that a musical version is well on its way, it is hard to get a word in edgewise on how she stood out in the arduous talent search held by co-producers Resorts World Manila (RWM), Viva Communications and Full House Theater Co.
That said, there is more to the 20-year-old than the Sharon Cuneta-cum-Solenn Heusaff-like dose of the cutes and a vocal that inches to the deepest stretches of one’s soul. Because, if indeed all the world’s a stage, the otherwise fledgling performer is, in real life, a hardened actress, so that had she been born 30 years earlier and Bituing Walang Ningning were to put her life to celluloid, the 1985 melodrama as we know it would not have been the same.
Winged by the untimely death of her parents, Monica was thrust into familial responsibility at a very tender age, and since then, had to live with her kins under the care of her aunt—“which was hard,” Monica said, because her foster parent had so many of her own children to begin with. “The finances were short and I didn’t want to be a burden to them.”
Seemingly a case yet again of life imitating art, Monica and Dorina were both vendors. “I was in elementary when I really started earning money. I sold puto with cheese in our province,” she added. In Cabral’s story, Dorina sells sampaguita.
Obviously, Monica’s talent is a gift from the heavens or the primnal forces of nature, having started singing precociously at age 3. “My mother would take me to birthday parties [where she sang for a living] and I remember taking home even more than what she could earn. People adored me that much,” she recalled. “Because of singing, I dreamed big.”
On her way from below the totem pole to this biggest break thus far to act on one of the country’s grandest stage before the most critical audience, Monica performed in ABS-CBN’s cutie-patootie talent search Little Big Star in Cebu and it was she who ranked second-best to grand winner Angeline Quinto in the Sharon Cuneta-emceed competition Star Power.
“I realized that I now have bigger shoes to fill,” Monica said of the musical remake. “All I can promise is that I will do my best for everyone to come out of the theater satisfied each time.”
“Bituing Walang Ningning is close to my heart because it is the song of my life,” Monica said. Which probably explains how, when the new Dorina Pineda was revealed, Monica took us again in nostalgia to exactly where Sharon Cuneta had taken most of the batang 1980s in the audience for the first time in 30 years, when tearjerkers mirrored our greatest aspirations and everyone was as mellow as we watched a Pinoy Box Office flick in such ungodly hour.
I was about to grab some tissue as Monica belted the lyrics of her life when, in the briefest of hours, archrival Lavinia Arguelles—in the guise of seasoned thespian Cris Villonco—stepped in to pee on her parade.
“There’s no giving anyone nice things on that stage,” Cris said, with no apparent qualms even if it is her “second-rate trying hard copycat’s” maiden theatrical stint. “No-no-no-no-no!” This, despite Cris’s regular ingenue stage roles and “a baby face that is very telling that I’m such a nice person.”
But for someone as versatile an actress as Cris, the tectonic shift is no forcing a square peg into a round hole. “I really am mataray and, on TV, they gave me opportunities to play kontrabida and that’s what I really like to do. This is really a great change for me theatrically.”
Mark Bautista will play Dorina’s man Nico Escobar, while other pivotal roles will be assumed by the likes of veterans Michael Williams and Menchu Lauchengco-Yulo.
Bituing Walang Ningning: The Musical opens in RWM’s Newport Performing Arts Theater in June.
Image credits: Alysa Salen