MANILA – Anyone who lived in Hawaii in the early 1990s remembers the story of a little Elvis impersonator named Bruno Hernandez in a Waikiki revue. He hadn’t even gone to elementary school when he appeared on the cover of the local Midweek newspaper (which we all still remember) posing as a true King, and soon earned him a role as an Elvis impersonator in the movie “Honeymoon.” In Vegas.” Local fame is very important in Hawaii. And before he even reached 10, Bruno was somewhat of a local celebrity.
The cute boy already had the kind of style, chops, and showmanship that some take a lifetime trying to achieve. It certainly wasn’t the sort of thing that crossed my mind when I was in elementary school while living in the Philippines. Coincidentally, I was there Sunday night at the Philippine Arena (in Santa Maria, Bulacan, about 30km north of Manila and about 75km from where I once lived) watching Bruno Mars perform so effortlessly on stage.
Close your eyes and imagine little Peter Hernandez Jr. performing the kind of hilarious show his father did with the doo-wop variety show “The Love Notes” at Honolulu’s Esprit nightclub 30 years ago or later as the opening act of Magic. Polynesia in his youth. Mars still puts on the same kind of show that pleases large, diverse audiences – but now it’s on an epic level.
Vocals and movements, yes. But there is also a three-piece brass horn section. The spare “Hooligans”, who sing and dance equally smoothly, provide the necessary exaggeration. On the guitar there is the wail of Mars, which he has become quite professional. At the start of the night, Mars meaningfully introduces his group and gives each of them a moment in the spotlight to showcase their talents. The singer takes some time off to sing some of her extensive songwriting catalog as a solo on piano. Nodding to her origins, Mars sings “Be My Baby” by Ronettes on the 2010 track “Marry You”.
Mars has been doing this version of his show for a while—including a Vegas resident—so he knows it all and apparently doesn’t quite confuse him.
And maybe there’s a reason: Mars hasn’t released a solo album since 2016’s “24K Magic,” and has recently focused her attention on her Silk Sonic collaboration with Anderson .Paak. But it’s already amassed a string of mega hits to fuel its biggest hit show – opening with “24K Magic” to “Finesse”, “Treasure” and “That’s What I Like” followed by “Runaway Baby”, “When I Was” Your Man, ” “Locked Out of Heaven” and “Just the Way You Are” — and “Uptown Funk” as encore. (Sil is a nod to Sonic, a lean version of “Leave the Door Open” during a break as he goes through the songbook, including “Young Wild and Free”, “Grenade” and “Nothing on You.”)
Performing a jukebox without new songs seems like something that seems premature given his youth and the prospect of more work to come. But hey, if he just wants to go on tour for hell right now, why not. The crowds are clearly there.
And they’re definitely savvy – a tribute to the way Mars interacts with the crowd in a way that few gamers do these days. Mars personalizes his banter with the crowd at each concert stop – a bit of Korean in Seoul, for example. But in Manila, the situation is on a completely different level, as Mars decorated the entire evening with selected phrases in Tagalog to the delight of the large crowd.
Later, while talking on a fake, gold-plated ’90s-style brick cell phone in the middle of “Calling All My Lovelies” (see Showmanship), “Hey baby, I’m in the Philippines right now. What happened? Four to five years? [He last played the Philippines in 2018.] But I still feel the same for you.” Then “Miss na kita, mahal!” (“I missed you love!”) The hooligans then step in and turn it into a melodic plea. “Miss na kita, mahal!”
It’s extra exciting to watch the partly Filipino Mars perform to a crowd in Manila. The Philippine Arena, the world’s largest mixed-use indoor arena, houses 55,000 people, and Mars’ first night in the city is completely sold out. I managed to get to Night 2, and despite the huge crowd, the show went surprisingly smooth, like a Bruno Mars chorus. Mars took the stage around 7:10 a.m., just ten minutes after the advertised start time. And while that may seem early, remember that it’s a Sunday night and going to the Bruno Mars concert is a family affair here. Also, alcohol is not served at concerts in the Philippines, which surprised me. (At first, since the Philippine Arena belongs to a church, I assumed it was the owner’s prerogative – but apparently that’s the norm.) A concert where no one buys a $15 (or 836 Philippine pesos) beer sounds unusual, but at the same time, these crowd cries are totally real. It also means that it is and is not a byproduct of oiled fans.
According to the news site Rappler, which received mixed ratings from music lovers as the Philippine Arena is located far outside of Manila, it is difficult to access the venue, and there are few dining and accommodation options in the area.
On-site groceries come from temporary stands, although through popular vendors such as Chowking, McDonald’s, Yellow Cab Pizza Co., Jamba Juice, and Shakey’s. The queues are ridiculously long – a sign that the venue still hasn’t figured out how to treat its 55,000-strong crowd. And the arena, horseshoe shaped, works fine for concerts, although I think it makes the basketball games that take place there a bit awkward – only crowds on three sides.
Shout out to the Warner Music Philippines team I met there, most of whom have never been to the Philippine Arena. To be safe, we left BGC (Bonifacio Global City) at 14:00 in a minibus and arrived on time and through the tough Metro Manila traffic. The traffic was surprisingly light (the route was no worse than a drive from Los Angeles to Anaheim) and we got there at 3:30 p.m., yes, but the crowd was already in full effect, buying trinkets from outdoor vendors (my favourite) Headbands with Bruno’s head over two antennae) and standing in a long queue to take pictures in front of a lighted step-by-step photo of the superstar. Inside the arena, every time a prerecorded track finished—sorry, no Bruno yet—the crowd in the arena screamed, families took selfies, and fans settled into their seats.
Finally the lights went out and the band took the stage. Imagine 55,000 people roaring in an indoor arena when Mars picks up the microphone. The boy who was once Elvis had entered the building, and the crowd couldn’t help falling in love. “To the table akong casha kayo!” (“Glad to see you!”), Bruno Mars declared. And on a warm June night in the Philippines, the feeling was mutual.