Note: This is not a spoiler-free review of “The Last Five Years.” Major themes and plot points will be discussed in the review.
If my entire college career could be summed up in one musical, it would be “The Last Five Years.” Not that I was a Jewish writer or a struggling starlet trying to make it big on Broadway, but because of the sheer magnitude of the obsession I had with the musical.
Suffice to say, I was highly intrigued when I heard that they were staging the Jason Robert Brown written musical locally. The local run is helmed by Gab Pangilinan as Cathy Hiatt and Myke Salomon as Jamie Wellerstein, with direction by Topper Fabregas and musical direction by Rony Fortich.
The musical follows the story of Jamie, a Jewish writer from New York City, and Cathy, an aspiring Broadway actress, who meet, fall in love, and then fall apart. There are two distinct timelines in the musical, with Cathy going through life in reverse chronological order, and Jamie’s story being told from beginning to end.
The couple’s timelines only sync once—in the middle of the show with a heartfelt duet about the love they have for one another.
While other “Last Five Years” devotees may have set sky-high expectations at the news, I did not. As a personal coping mechanism, I try to set my expectations for literally everything as low as possible.
But even if I did set my expectations appropriately, Barefoot Theater Collaborative’s staging of the musical would have shot them through the roof.
A vision come to life
Power Mac Center Spotlight Theater in Makati is the show’s chosen venue. Much like the show, it’s a blank canvas where the creative team can show off their skills. It was also the most appropriate venue for Barefoot’s version of the show.
Instead of a proscenium type of staging where the audience is seated in front of the cast, this production used a traverse stage—which means that the stage is in the center of the theater and the audience sits on either side. This gives an almost 360-degree view of the musical.
The production’s design (care of Joey Mendoza) takes up the shape of New York’s iconic Central Park, lush greenery and all. There’s a panel on the bare center of the stage that moves across its length, which also does a good job of conveying where the actors are in terms of the timeline, which can get complicated if not executed properly.
All in all, these were very ambitious decisions by director Fabregas, but it paid off in spades. The audience sitting on either side gives the theatergoers a literal closer look at the actors. At some points of the show, the actors can almost directly interact with the audience due to how closely (and how near-eye level) they’re seated.
The slightly elevated stage also allows the viewers to observe the musical from different angles, giving them a slightly different experience depending on where they’re seated.
While the set and director’s vision are both very important, the weight of the show rests squarely on the actors to execute it and bring the whole show to life. And for a two person musical, that’s no easy feat.
“Son-of-a-bitch, I guess I’m doing something right!”
What makes the musical a very difficult one to stage is that it’s a two hander, meaning there are only two actors involved in the entire production. This run is made even more interesting by the fact that Jamie and Cathy are played by real life husband and wife duo, Myke Salomon and Gab Pangilinan.
The musical opens with a highly emotional and tear-jerking number, “Still Hurting” sung by Cathy after Jamie leaves her in the apartment they shared together. It’s a daunting opening number that sets the tone for the rest of the show, so the pressure is really through the roof.
In all honesty, the show took a while to warm up.
I would attribute it to opening night jitters, and especially since the show is so iconic in the theater community. Pangilinan’s vocal prowess was definitely present in the opening, but you could still see the gears turning in her head, making sure she was hitting the right notes.
The same could be said for Salomon, who you could also see was thinking through the first few numbers of the musical.
The show really picked up during the musical’s fifth number “A Summer in Ohio.” In this comedic number, Cathy laments that she has to spend time away from Jamie due to a show she’s starring in in Ohio, which is not somewhere an aspiring Broadway actress wants to be.
This specific number is regarded as one of the most challenging songs to perform because of how exhausting all the belting and acting at the same time can be.
During this number, I no longer saw Gab Pangilinan on stage. She had fully transformed herself into Cathy Hiatt—aspiring big time star. When she stepped on the stage for this song, she visibly shed her real life persona and fully committed to the role.
This was also around the time I whispered excitedly to my date for the evening (and boss) that Pagilinan was the perfect Cathy. And now, at least to me, she’s the only Cathy.
The show only got better from that point on.
Pangilinan shined so brightly during both the intimate and sorrowful moments, as well as the bigger and more comedic numbers. Salomon (who took a little longer to fully step into the shoes of Jamie Wellerstein), did not pull any punches in performing the more emotional numbers of the musical, especially the musical’s penultimate number “Nobody Needs to Know.”
This number (that chronologically precedes “See I’m Smiling”) is pivotal in the show because it’s revealed that Jamie has been cheating on Cathy. It also gives us insight on how drastically his feelings for his wife had changed, leading to him leaving her.
Salomon’s layered and complex performance also evokes a sort of sympathy for Jamie. He didn’t want to fall out of love with Cathy, but he did. And now he’s dealing with all the broken pieces. It also didn’t hurt that Salomon’s booming, emotional vocals and devastated expressions were on full display.
A non-stop explosion of emotions
Talent aside, stamina is an important consideration to stage this production successfully. Both Salomon and Pangilinan are both seasoned actors, and their familiarity and experience with the stage truly shows.
The musical runs for 90 minutes straight—no intermission.
Not having an intermission for “The Last Five Years,” though, proves to be an excellent decision. Experiencing the musical straight from top to bottom fully immerses the audience in the world the whole team has built, brimming with the full spectrum of human emotion—and not just the teary ones.
Having no room to metaphorically breathe concentrates and magnifies the romance, joy, rage, heartbreak, and devastation that is Jamie and Cathy’s relationship.
For devout fans and non-fans alike, this run of “The Last Five Years” is not something you should miss. At its core, the musical is a deep dive into the intimate goings-on of two people who fell in and out of love. It shows us the most beautiful and cataclysmic parts of a relationship, all in the span of 90 minutes.
The entire team behind the production—including the fantastic band who provided the score for the evening—should be proud of the art they’ve created. And I’m proud to say that even after all this time, I’m still hurting. In the best way possible.
Barefoot Theater Collaborative’s “The Last Five Years” is running at the Power Mac Center Spotlight Blackbox Theater until Oct. 29.