The Barefoot Theater Collective’s fresh, inventive staging of the Off-Broadway hit musical The Last Five Years by award-winning playwright Jason Robert Brown is a poignant night out at the theater. With clever, simple production design by Joey Mendoza at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Black Box Theater, the show is an all-singing two-hander, starring two of Manila’s most recognized musical theater talents.
The story is a simple one: boy and girl meet, fall in love, marry, change, grow apart and fall out of love. What makes this age-old story fresh is playwright Brown’s clever structuring of the couple’s tale. The play opens with a crushed and regretful Cathy, played by the capable and chameleon-like Gab Pangilinan, most recently seen in the original Filipino musical Mula Sa Buwan. Cathy’s first song begins at the end of the couple’s marriage, after which we meet ambitious young writer Jamie played energetically by Myke Salomon (also seen in Mula Sa Buwan.) Jamie’s story starts at the beginning of their relationship, when he is an East Coast Jewish boy excitedly dating a non-Jewish Midwestern girl, belting out the memorably-titled Shiksa Goddess.
Pangilinan has the more difficult role in that her character as written is very non-specific. She works hard to bring a specificity to a generic character and pulls it off, growing in vocal strength and emotional impact as Cathy’s story takes us back to the early days of the couple’s relationship when she was as a hopeful, aspiring actress.
On the other hand, Salomon’s Jamie as written by Brown is a much more clearly drawn character, his songs filled with a plethora of details about the New York publishing world and Jamie’s Jewish heritage that may not be familiar to some in the audience, but which allow Salomon to inhabit Jamie as a more three-dimensional character. Jamie becomes less sympathetic as the story goes on; Salomon carefully calibrates his interpretation to turn Jamie from a young, brash romantic into a cynical, self-justifying success story who struggles unconvincingly to save his marriage.
The two characters’ timelines intersect towards the middle of the show. The audience can’t help but watch with a mix of hope, foreboding, and regret as their love story unspools – and respools. Though we know it will not last, like a car crash, we can’t look away. The strength of the performers lures us in to listen and watch as their love story rises and falls, ends and begins. It’s a wonderful evening at the theater – with some powerful, catchy songs, strong performances and thoughtful direction.
The Last Five Years was originally produced for the New York stage by Arielle Tepper and Marty Bell and originally produced by Northlight Theatre, Chicago IL. It is presented in Manila through special arrangement with Music Theatre International (MTI), New York, NY, USA.