A feast for the senses – but doesn’t quite coalesce in the heart

“Baka maiyak ako” (I might cry), the lady seated behind me intoned to her companion just before the show started. “Pero ‘di bale. Madilim naman” (But that’s okay since it’s dark).

Her concern of tearing up during the show was triggered by the unusual configuration of the stage and the audience seats for this particular show — a low, slim platform that straddled the entire length of the venue right smack in the middle of two layered/staggered seating sections.

The viewers on both sides faced each other. Apparently the lady didn’t want others to see her cry.

My guess is the tears didn’t come.

That’s not necessarily the fault of anyone involved in this production of The Last Five Years, Jason Robert Brown’s acclaimed 22-year-old musical that had its debut in Manila in 2003 after premiering in Chicago in 2001 and Off-Broadway in 2002.

Now, the Barefoot Theatre Collaborative is staging its own version of the musical (at the Power Mac Center Spotlight in Ayala Circuit), with real-life couple Gab Pangilinan and Myke Salomon, both accomplished theater artists, playing the leads.

Reverse timelines
On paper, The Last Five Years sounds like a whopper of an emotional rollercoaster ride. It’s about the five-year relationship between rising novelist Jamie and struggling actress Cathy that starts, as all romances usually go, with happy hellos and ends, as theatrical pieces usually go, with sad goodbyes.

What sets it apart from the usual is its storytelling: While both characters narrate the same story simultaneously, Jamie tells it from the first year to the last while Cathy recounts it from the last year to the first. Parallel lives in reverse timelines.

It’s a novel, ingenious take on the he said, she said conceit that adds an extra layer of friction and tension to the songs in this sung-through piece. And it is creatively visualized by director Topper Febregas and production designer Joey Mendoza with the inventive runway-like stage made up of two parallel platforms with a hollow middle section where a small mobile platform is placed to carry the actors to various spots of the stage throughout the show.

Jamie and Cathy are only ever together — side by side, hand in hand, wrapped in a tight, warm embrace, bodies entwined in a waltz — on this tiny piece of the performance stage for one number, during their marriage proposal and wedding halfway through the show.

If only the source material gave us more of this “show,” the tears would’ve probably come to the audience. But it’s mostly tell, the piece made up of a string of vignettes from Jamie and Cathy’s relationship. We hear them sing individually about their joys, frustrations, dreams, aspirations, struggles, victories and despair, as lovers and as professionals, from one musical number to the next, and every song highlights a particular conflict between the couple.

Little drama
But none of it draws us very deeply into their woundedness, their brokenness. There’s little drama, really: Although we see how their marriage crumbles in the second half of the last five years, we don’t get a sense of and feel for what they have lost.

In a way, the catwalk-style stage is perfect as the show feels more like a fashion extravaganza, with songs standing in for couture: It’s enjoyable as a spectacle but does not engage as a narrative piece can and should.

Not that stars Gabbi Pangilinan and Myke Salomon don’t pack any heat with their performances. Salomon, in particular, is arresting as Jamie, his highly expressive face registering a full range of emotions without overselling anything, and his full, creamy, commanding baritone growing in color, weariness and edge as his character ages over the years.

Pangilinan certainly has the more difficult part, a character whose narrative arc is the opposite of the convention — starting the show as a weathered, emotionally battered if not defeated woman and ending it as a wide-eyed, hopeful romantic girl. It’s a major challenge for any performer, and Pangilinan certainly hits all the musical notes perfectly, effortlessly. But perhaps only seasoned artists have what it really takes to hurdle it and bring Cathy to full, thrilling, cutting life within just 90 minutes.

The Last Five Years, with its inventive material and clever design, surely is a feast for the senses. It just doesn’t quite coalesce in the heart.

There’s little chance of being caught crying under the lights.

The Last Five Years runs from 29 September to 15 October at Power Mac Center Spotlight, Circuit Makati, Makati City. Tickets available at Ticket2Me.