THEATRE REVIEW: Symphony In Manila

by Rose Cruz Churma

Unlike a full-blown play, in a staged reading the cast read their lines on stage. The setting is minimal—in this case, the stage was bare except for a few studs and planks. A set of microphones is aligned at the edge of the stage, and the cast takes turns to read their lines.

Despite the minimal backdrop and a cast that took on multiple roles, this staged reading delivers. The scenes depicted in the play ranged from the rubble that was Manila as the retreating Japanese army razed the city to the ground—to the Nazi concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald.

As noted on the playbill, the storyline is “based on a true story about love, war, life, death and Beethoven.” The central character is Dr. Herbert Zipper, one of many Jews persecuted in Nazi Germany who were given visas by then President Manuel Quezon. During the 1930s, most countries including the United States, closed their doors to these refugees, but the Philippines admitted 1,200 Jews.

Dr. Zipper received a visa to be the conductor of the Manila Symphony Orchestra in 1939 and to join his fiancée, the ballerina, Trudl Muller (played by Mandy Chang, a local actor regularly appearing in local film productions and commercials).

However, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and invaded the Philippines soon after. Dr. Zipper found himself in prison camps once more, this time under Japanese control. What sustained him was the dream of reviving the Manila Symphony Orchestra to conduct Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, Eroica, “to celebrate the victory of good over evil.”In May 1945, amidst the ruins of the Philippines’ capital, Dr. Zipper and the members of the symphony who survived the war performed the Eroica Symphony at Manila’s Santa Cruz church.  In the final scene, one could hear the soaring notes of the music—a triumphant conclusion to the play.

Although the main storyline is the odyssey of Dr. Zipper (performed admirably by Eugen Schlosser, an HPU graduate from Germany who is passionate about classical music), the other cast members provided the historical and cultural context of the Philippines during its Commonwealth period and during World War II.

The characters of Pat Delrosario (played by Miki Yamamoto, the music/band teacher at Waimanalo Intermediate) and Mrs. Carmen Delrosario (played by Deanna Espinas, a retired correctional librarian and community volunteer) depicted the social mores and values of the times.

In one scene the young and attractive Pat Delrosario threatens to spend the weekend in Baguio with an American military officer—if her mother—the influential society matron Mrs. Carmen Delrosario does not work her magic in getting a visa for Dr. Zipper.

Mrs. Delrosario’s response is classic—“What will people say!” Both characters also had Tagalog sentences to deliver—which they did well considering that neither speaks the language.

Two of the cast members had to take on multiple characters. The theatrical experience would have been enhanced if each actor was assigned one role instead of multiple ones.

The narration on stage by assistant director Kathleen Racuya-Markrich, on the changes of character and scene, minimized the confusion. The actors’ delivery of their lines also alerted the audience to the change.

In the case of Jose Ver, a local actor and comedian affiliated with Improv Hawaii, he subtly changed his accent depending on the role he took on. He played the role of an American expat, an SS guard and Manuel—the sakada who returned home from Hawai’i.

In creating the role of Manuel, the author was able to create a connection with the local Hawai’i audience and describe the struggles and hardships endured by the first OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) —the Filipino sakadas recruited to work in the islands’ sugar plantations.

The other cast member who took on the roles of Tom Walsh, Rheinhardt and Mr. Herbert Thompson was Thomas McNamara, a local actor who has performed in local theater on Maui and Oahu.

Cassidy Patmon of Kailua took on the role of Dr. Emiko Fukuzawa, a music professor before the onset of the Japanese invasion, while Chris Inouye, currently a student at UH Manoa, played the role of Captain Sakamoto.

In a brief chat with the author, Michael Markrich, after the play, he shared his goal to inform and educate the mainstream community on the American colonial experience in the Philippines and Manila’s utter destruction at the end of WWII.

In that he succeeded, if only to a small select group of theater regulars at the Manoa Valley Theater.  Perhaps, at some future date, the play will have a wider audience to include all age groups, particularly the students.

At the staged reading of the play, I brought my teenage grandson to get his Gen Z reaction. Not too many in his age group were there that night, which is unfortunate because the play depicts a chapter in history that local-born kids are not too familiar with—“an enjoyable way to learn about history” as my grandson notes, after summarizing his review into one brief sentence: “It’s okay.”

And adds that using some props (such as a wheelbarrow, camera, etc.) may improve the theater experience. He adds that lengthening portions of Eroica Symphony played at the finale may heighten the emotional pull of the play.

I agreed that having a live orchestra and playing the entire 55-minute symphony would be wonderful, but impossible.

The author was meticulous in ensuring the historical accuracy of the play and created characters that heightened tension but also depicted stereotypes (i.e. the SS guards, the American colonizers, the Japanese spies, etc.).

However, the overall package worked—as an art form and a tool for remembrance that good will always triumph.

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA established Kalamansi Books & Things three decades ago. It has evolved from a mail-order bookstore into an online advocacy with the intent of helping global Pinoys discover their heritage by promoting books of value from the Philippines and those written by Filipinos in the Diaspora. We can be reached at

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