‘Changing Partners’ Cuts to the Feeling

We review Vincent de Jesus’s gender-switching romance, which returns with the same issues, but with even more emotion, thanks to great music and inimitable performances

by Emil Hofileña

It would be unfair to say that Changing Partners is simply a musical built on a gimmick; the way it deploys its big storytelling device has more intent and thoughtfulness than that. The romantic drama explores the relationship between Alex and Cris, who have 15 years between them—but the twist is that Agot Isidro and Jojit Lorenzo take turns playing the older Alex, while Anna Luna and Sandino Martin play the younger Cris. As a result, the musical doesn’t just look at one type of relationship, but also at the specific dynamics across relationships between different heterosexual and homosexual couples. There are some undeniably questionable implications that arise from this device, but Changing Partners still manages to retain its emotional impact, thanks to graceful music and intense performances.

 

For those who were able to see Changing Partners’ first run at the Philippine Educational Theater Association in 2016, the first thing that should be striking about this latest staging is that it’s now mounted on a proper set, as opposed to 2016’s bare walls. It’s a simple living room and bar counter set-up, but it goes a long way in giving the impression that Alex and Cris’s relationship is one with a lot of history. The presence of furniture and décor only makes things feel more fragile.

Director Rem Zamora utilizes the space well, and maximizes its potential in the climactic scene when all four actors share the stage, weaving around all the furniture, cycling through every variation of the relationship. Those who have only seen the Dan Villegas-directed film adaptation from 2017 owe it to themselves to see Zamora’s take. On stage, the musical is paced far more deliberately. The result feels more natural, and the tension more perilous.

 

Vincent de Jesus’s musical arrangements for this incarnation of the show are also markedly different compared to those of the original run and of the film. Whereas Villegas’s Changing Partners had a fuller, busier sound, this run takes the original’s lone piano, but adds a cello on top. There’s a real intimacy to this approach, with the cello subtly deepening the frustration felt by each character. But what remains most interesting about de Jesus’s music is the way the songs change, lyrically. Majority of the songs are sung as internal monologues, with neither Alex nor Cris addressing the other directly. In their heads, they can romanticize their relationship, or hide from a full-on confrontation. And then, for the last two songs, they finally address each other—but by this point, it’s too late to salvage anything.

The high emotion supplied by the music works well within the smallness of the story. Changing Partners doesn’t attempt to paint a full portrait of Alex and Cris; it’s satisfied with the tail end of their lives together. This is a story not about the first seeds of doubt in a relationship, but the way these seeds have grown wild. So there’s an intensity and a sense of history in the way the musical is written, with each painful line threatening to have all of this weight that’s accumulated crumble down upon the couple.

 

However, the musical does make certain choices that don’t seem to fit its intentions. For one, this writer has always felt that the script takes Alex’s side far too much. There’s an attempt here to show that both partners are to blame for their inevitable breakup, but Alex gets all the witty one-liners anyway, while Cris is constantly denied the opportunity to express their own agency. There’s nothing wrong with drawing attention to Cris’s immaturity, but the depiction of a younger partner as purely a slacker is old-fashioned and somewhat unfair.

Then there’s the issue of the musical’s gender politics. While one could argue that Changing Partners doesn’t intend to make sweeping statements about the relationships it explores, it’s undeniable that it nevertheless ends up making some reductive insinuations. By depicting all permutations of the relationship the same way, the musical seems to claim that straight, gay, and lesbian relationships are also the same. There is some truth to this idea, but the smallness of the script robs the material of its chance to really explain itself. Even if a breakup happens in the same manner for different couples, heterosexuals and homosexuals all come from different contexts with different baggage. All of this affects one’s experience of romance. The musical just doesn’t have the time to get into that.

 

But whether or not you take all of this into account, practically all of Changing Partners’ success depends on the performances of its actors. In this respect, the musical triumphs as a performance piece. Every member of the cast seamlessly trades places with one another without ever disrupting the musical’s flow, each of them carrying over the emotional momentum from one scene to the next. And while all of them are capable of playing both cutesy and cutthroat, they also manage to add their own little nuances to their respective versions of the characters. Isidro is quietly exasperated as Alex, while Lorenzo is more frantic, aggressively bounding across the stage. Luna has a composed innocence about her, while Martin is more playful and childish. The alchemy that occurs between these actors is enough to dispel a number of the musical’s issues, and cuts straight to the heart.

 

Changing Partners runs from May 19 to 20 at the PETA Theater Center. Tickets are available at ticketworld.com.ph.